ST. ALBANS TOWN — Cleaning up a whole watershed is too much for one person or organization to do. It’s also too expensive.
Which is why St. Albans Town has joined forces with local farmers, watershed experts, the University of Vermont Extension and other organizations to carry out the St. Albans Watershed Initiative.
The initiative, which is the brainchild of Selectman Steve Coon, began two years ago when Coon identified the watershed cleanup as an important goal for the town and the community. “I would say that my number one initiative or effort that I think is a top priority is cleaning up the bay,” he said in an interview yesterday. “We need to recognize the richness of that resource.”
Coon later added, “This is the first time the town has stepped up and taken the lead.” According to Town Manager Carrie Johnson, the group started out as a grassroots effort, without any sort of funding, and is just now moving towards implementing actions.
Coon initially worked with former Town Manager Jerry Meyers to identify some goals and groups with which to work. “We had a discussion of ideas,” Coon said.
Soon enough, the initiative had others on board. The group, which includes the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, the UVM Extension, Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, the St. Albans Area Watershed Association, the Farmer’s Watershed Alliance, and also Johnson and Town Planner Maren Hill, met on Jan. 29 after a yearlong hiatus.
“We need to identify the basic, core things we need to do, and actually start doing them,” Coon said.
According to the meeting minutes, Coon laid out the town’s three pronged approach to clean up the water: reduce inflow into streams by improving storm water runoff and widening stream buffers, protect natural filters such as wetlands, and reclaim existing sediment by removing invasive species and allowing natural current flow in the bay.
One of the goals, in addition to the overarching ones laid out by Coon, was to find funding in order to assess what the best management practices are for small farms. “Heather (Darby, of the UVM Extension) estimated that this assessment would cost $5-7K to fund,” the minutes read.
All of these tasks, including the storm water runoff reduction that recently became required by law in December 2012 through the Municipal Separate Storm and Sewer System, or MS4, Regulations, look like they will be completed collaboratively. “All of us are participating in the problem,” Coon said. “All of us need to participate accordingly in the solution.”
One of the very active participants in this and other watershed cleanup initiatives is the nonprofit Farmer’s Watershed Alliance, led by Roger Rainville, of Alburgh. FWA, which was formed in 2006, works with farmers in Franklin and Grand Isle counties, and parts of Orleans County to implement practices on farms that are less damaging to the watershed.
“Over half of the farmers in the state are covered by this,” Rainville said in a recent interview. “It’s a big area.”
One of FWA’s programs is the Water Quality Assessment, which is a volunteer-run, confidential service that visits local farms to see how farmers can improve water diversion, soil erosion, livestock exclusion from water bodies, among other practices. “We’ve done probably 150 practices on farms,” Rainville said. Included in these practices is 100,000 acres worth of aerated soil that has been implemented since 2010, reducing manure-spreading runoff by 80 percent.
However, this program has been dependent on finding a field person to do the assessments, and this has caused some hardship for the organization, which has a very small budget. It was about $3,000 for 2013.
“That’s one of our biggest problems,” Rainville said. In addition to being unable to retain a willing assessor, Rainville said inconsistent state and federal funding has made it hard to do educational outreach. “We’re really limited,” he said. “The economics always plays a role.”
In the end, though, Rainville makes a point that money, whether granted to FWA or to another organization, will have to be spent on cleaning up the watershed and preserving the valuable resource. “It’s going to cost us to keep our water clean,” he said. “[Currently], we’re doing it all ourselves. Farmers understand the value of a dollar.”
It appears the Town of St. Albans understands the importance of water and the associated costs, too. Coon and other town officials are looking to continue their forward momentum with the St. Albans Watershed Initiative, wanting to focus their energies on watershed cleanup before the job gets harder and the costs higher.
“I think we’re going to meet more frequently,” Johnson said. “[This recent meeting] was extremely productive from my point of view.”
Coon wants to see the St. Albans Bay go back to the way it was when he was a boy, when he swam across the bay and back on warm summer days. “I think that large bodies of water have proven they can heal themselves if given the opportunity,” he said. “I’d like to see that happen.”
To learn more about the St. Albans Watershed Initiative, contact Town Planner Maren Hill at 802-524-7589 Ext. 108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the Farmers Watershed Alliance website at http://farmerswatershedalliance.com.