‘It’s not just that things are broken … [W]e keep breaking new things.’
Editor’s Note: This is another in an ongoing series of reports related to lake water quality issues. Another will appear in Thursday’s edition.
ST. ALBANS — If area residents want clean water in Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi they need to pressure state and local politicians to take action, in the view of Julie Moore, the former head of the state’s Center for Clean and Clear.
Moore, who has a degree in civil engineering and a Masters in environmental science and policy from Johns Hopkins, was in charge of overseeing efforts to reduce the flow of phosphorous into Lake Champlain during the Douglas administration. She serves on multiple water quality organization boards and is now with Stone Environmental, a science and engineering firm that does extensive work on water quality issues.
Concern about water quality in lakes Champlain and Carmi have been voiced more strenuously in Franklin County as toxic algae blooms have fouled water to a record extent. The topic was front and center at a St. Albans Town Selectboard meeting this week where officials again said that action must be taken and soon. No definitive plans came out of the session, however.
Asked by the Messenger on Tuesday what residents can do, Moore replied, “I think they should be writing to the governor and demanding his attention.”
Environmental Commissioner David Mears and Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, who oversaw the development of a new plan to reduce pollution in the lake, also known as the TMDL (total maximum daily load), are committed to improving the lake in Moore’s view, but she believes others in the Shumlin administration may not share that commitment. Locally, Steve Cushing, president of the St. Albans Area Watershed Association, was critical of the administration for not tackling the issue head-on.
The governor’s office has since issued a press statement saying Gov. Peter Shumlin does care about water quality issues. Members of the Shumlin administration are scheduled to appear with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. at the Burlington waterfront to announce further plans.
As for what Vermonters also can do, Moore said that residents could challenge local officials to change local zoning laws.
Efforts to reduce the flow of pollution into the lake are being overwhelmed by new development and new cornfields, she said, both of which increase the amount of phosphorous in the lake.
Moore described projects to reduce both urban and agricultural runoff as repairing something that’s broken. For every item fixed, one or two more are broken. “It’s not just that things are broken. It’s that we keep breaking new things,” said Moore.
“We can’t constantly be losing ground with every new house or building … for the stormwater retrofits that people are installing to have the intended benefit,”said Moore.
New zoning requirements that focus on stormwater would enable towns to get ahead of the problem, preventing new problems from being created that will then have to be corrected.
“Stormwater’s an afterthought,” in local zoning, said Moore.
But stormwater flowing off of roads, parking lots, and roofs adds to the speed and velocity of water in streams, eroding streambeds. Streambank erosion is one of the leading sources of phosphorous, accounting for more than 20 percent of the phosphorous lake wide and as much as 40 percent in Missisquoi Bay.
New developments must be more than an acre in size before a state stormwater permit is required, leaving lots of developments subject only to local zoning, where rules are more likely to hinder efforts to reduce stormwater, explained Moore.
Minimum parking requirements encourage developers to build unnecessarily large parking lots, in Moore’s view. Maximum limits on parking would be more effective at reducing stormwater, she suggested.
Similarly, curb requirements make it harder to redirect water onto pervious surfaces where it can sink into the ground instead of flowing directly into streams.
Moore now works with Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC) and with St. Albans Town as part of an ongoing FNLC program to target stormwater projects and to identify opportunities in the town for reducing phosphorous. One of the recommendations, she said, will include zoning changes.
The town also has undersized culverts, which contribute to erosion, according to Moore.
There are also steps individual households can take to reduce the runoff of phosphorous from their own land.
“Until you have done your piece and are living in a way that’s sustainable, you can’t point the finger,” said Moore.
The goal for homeowners is to turn their land into a sponge for stormwater. “Try to keep your stormwater on your land,” said Moore.
Homeowners can improve their lawn’s ability to absorb by raking in compost and leaving grass clippings on the lawn where they will add to the organic content of the soil. The more organic matter in soil, the better it will absorb water.
Lawns should be kept at least three inches high and homeowners should avoid using fertilizer, said Moore. Fertilizer, like manure, contributes phosphorous to the lake.
Dredging the bay
Even if all phosphorous flows into St. Albans Bay were stopped tomorrow, there would still be algal blooms. St. Albans Bay has phosphorous within its bed that gets released into the water and feeds the algae.
Moore believes a neutral third party, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, needs to determine at what point removal of that phosphorous would be optimal. There is general agreement that reductions in the flow of phosphorous into the bay must be made before the phosphorous in the sediment can be addressed, but there isn’t agreement on how large those reductions need to be, explained Moore.
Moore also has pushed for the Corps to take deep core samples of the bay’s bed to determine what other pollutants might be present. Given the heavy industry that existed in the area for decades, there may be pollutants in the bottom of the bay best left where they are ruling out dredging as an option, according to Moore.
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Tomorrow: Moore speaks about agriculture.