George Ouellette, photo
This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
ST. ALBANS — A plan being put forward by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets (VAAFM) to reduce phosphorous in Lake Champlain would, if fully implemented, reduce the phosphorous in St. Albans Bay by 55 percent, enough to meet current water quality standards.
The plan, discussed at meetings in St. Albans and Swanton on Monday, would reduce phosphorous in Missisquoi Bay by 40 percent, which would not be sufficient to meet standards. Missisquoi Bay is one of two of the lake’s 13 segments that would still have too much phosphorous, according to information from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Additional practices would need to be implemented on those two segments.
The state’s “Proposal for a Clean Lake Champlain” has been drafted as part of the creation of a new total maximum daily load (TMDL) for Vermont’s phosphorous contributions to Lake Champlain. Officials from EPA, ANR and VAAFM are holding meetings around the state to get public input on the proposed new practices and regulations.
“This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end,” said Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross. State officials are soliciting public response to the proposal before officially presenting EPA with a clean up plan early next year.
Commenting on the road ahead, Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears, said, “We have a lot of work to do as a state to meet the obligations of the law and clean up the lake.”
Stephen Perkins of EPA pointed to the main focus of the efforts, saying, “At the end of the day it’s the implementation that happens here on the ground in Vermont that will determine the future of the lake.”
EPA decided to reconsider the TMDL in response to a legal challenge by the Conservation Law Foundation two years ago. Since then, EPA, state scientists, and a company called Tetra Tech have been building models to determine how much phosphorous each lake segment, and the lake as a whole, can handle and still achieve water quality standards.
Phosphorous contributes to the growth of blue-green algae, whose blooms can harm human health and the lake’s ecosystem.
Scientists have determined the maximum amount of phosphorous the lake can handle is 495 metric tons per year. But there are currently 819 metric tons of phosphorous going into the lake each year.
Under the new limit Vermont is allowed 343 metric tons per year, 190 tons less than the state currently sends to the lake.
Determining the maximum amount of phosphorous the lake can accept is the first step in the creation of the new TMDL.
Next, those 343 metric tons will be divided among:
• a wasteload allocation made up of permitted sources of phosphorous such as confined animal feeding operations, construction sites and wastewater treatment facilities;
• a load allocation comprised of what are commonly called “non-point” sources of phosphorous such as stormwater runoff and streambank erosion;
• and, a margin of safety.
Permits for the state’s wastewater treatment facilities allow them to contribute 56 metric tons of phosphorous to the lake each year, but their actual contribution is 17 metric tons. If every one of those facilities upgraded to the highest level of technology available for phosphorous removal, the facilities would collectively contribute 12 metric tons of phosphorous each year to the lake.
That reduction would reduce phosphorous to needed levels in only five of the13 lake segments, noted David Mears, commissioner of environmental conservation, and requires an investment of millions of dollars.
Mears would rather see those funds spent on some or all of the practices outlined in the “Proposal for a Clean Lake Champlain.”
“EPA will be looking for… reasonable assurance the reductions we need to make the program work will be achieved,” said Perkins.
If the state does not provide those assurances, EPA will be legally obligated to take action to reduce the amount of phosphorous from the point sources over which it has regulatory authority, explained Mears.
Historically, control over land use has been left with state and local governments, he said. That means EPA has little leverage over such things as development within river corridors or stormwater runoff from local roads. Only the state can get at those sources.
“In Vermont in 2013 we don’t need the federal government to tell us how to do this. We should be able to do this ourselves,” he added.
There was little criticism of the proposed clean up plan from the roughly 100 attendees at the two meetings, on held at the St. Albans Historical Museum in the afternoon, the other at the Swanton Village Municipal Complex. However, concern was expressed about how the proposal would be paid for and the outreach and education needed to get citizens involved.
Eric Wolinsky, former president of the St. Albans Area Watershed Association, praised the proposal calling it the first serious plan for the clean up of the lake he’s seen. “You probably don’t hear this often, but thank goodness for the EPA,” he said.
Wolinsky added the state should do more to minimize the impacts of blue-green algae blooms as they occur and reduce weeds in the lake.
So far, no numbers have been publicly attached to the cost of the clean up efforts. Asked about cost, Mears replied the first step is to determine what actions need to be taken and then determine a method for paying for them.
Perkins indicated the EPA would approve the TMDL absent a funding commitment. The final draft of the TMDL will include a phasing in of the practices and regulatory changes needed for phosphorous reduction and consequences for the state should it fail to implement those changes on schedule. This is a model EPA used in the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
“We’re realistic enough to know Vermont is not going to allocate all this money overnight,” said Perkins.
Denise Smith, executive director of Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, suggested EPA insist on funding for clean up as part of the TMDL approval.
There have been lots of assurances of cleanup efforts in the past, she pointed out. “The lake is still green and it’s getting greener,” she added. “We need a clean water fund today, not 10 years from now.”
“I would encourage the EPA not to accept anything from Vermont that doesn’t have money behind it,” she said.
A woman who did not identify herself suggested the state consider an education effort similar to the Soils for Salmon program, which got the public involved in efforts to clean up waterways in Washington State.
The same woman also pointed out the importance of organic matter in soils for improving water storage capacity and reducing erosion. She suggested the state consider encouraging farmers to increase the organic matter in their soils. “You hold the water on the land, you hold the phosphorous,” she said.
Ross agreed on the benefits of organic matter not only for erosion reduction but also for overall soil health and crop quality.
Several speakers at the city meeting raised the issue of public education, as did Chad Tyler at the Swanton meeting.
Bellows Free Academy teacher Jeff Moulton also asked about a role for schools in education efforts as well as the need to educate the general public. Vermonters are stubborn, he suggested. “We want what’s best for us, but we don’t want to be told what to do,” Moulton said.
Mears replied that education and outreach programs have been some of the hardest hit by cuts to ANR staffing. Secretary of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz has been looking at finding ways to increase outreach to schools and municipal officials in particular, he said.
“This is a responsibility for all of us,” said Ross. “We all need to take this education piece on.”
Molly Lambert of Swanton commented on the importance of personal responsibility in cleaning up the lake. “It is not our problem collectively,” she said. “It is our problem individually.”
Poor water quality in the lake is the result of decades of inadequate public policy and inadequate investment, said Ross.
“This is something Vermont needs to do,” said Ross. “This is our lake, our rivers and streams.”