WATER QUALITY: What can you do?

Lake advocate issues call for public action

Elodie Reed

By Elodie Reed

Staff Writer

The Facts

Owned by

ST. ALBANS — So it’s storming heavily outside, you’ve got a nice lawn and a house, and look: there’s some pretty serious water running across your land. Chris Boget’s suggestion? Stick a tree in it.

“It’s going to just soak it up,” he said.

Boget, executive director of the Lake Champlain Land Trust, like many others, is in the business of improving water quality. He, too, is concerned about phosphorous-fed cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, that continues to bloom in Lake Champlain and chases swimmers, boaters and water drinkers (not to mention wildlife) away.

Heavy, violent storms keep pouring water on top of loose, fertilized and nutrient-rich soils that travel through ditches, across impervious surfaces and directly into streams and the lake.

While farmers can change their agricultural practices, activists can lobby for action, state legislators can approve a Clean Water Fund, state and federal regulators can tighten the rules, water quality groups can complete projects and municipalities can amend their zoning and improve their roadways, it’s not always clear what individual homeowners can do.

That’s where Boget comes in. He said on Thursday, “Landowners can do a lot. No matter where they live – everyone [in Franklin County] is in the watershed.”

The LCLT is especially interested in getting families to assess their property and see what they can do. “There’s a number of conservation tools we can use,” said Boget.

The organization has held several workshops over the summer in Franklin County, and beginning in this weekend’s Messenger, the LCLT will share ideas with landowners in a monthly column (see page 8A).

On a walk through the Mill River Falls conservation area in Georgia this week, Boget listed – and pointed out – the various methods. As mentioned above, planting trees is probably the most straightforward way to stop erosion and stormwater runoff.

“You’re walking through a forest and you’ll never see a washout,” said Boget. Pointing to the tree-filled land at Mill River Falls, he added, “A mature tree is going to absorb thousands of gallons during its lifetime.”

Tree roots soak up water and hold soil intact, where water can slowly seep through and leave behind nutrients, like phosphorous, before eventually flowing into a nearby stream. Boget dug a little ways into the soil at Mill River Falls to show a wet, rich, well-packed dirt.

“We’ve got Mother Nature’s water quality filters here in action,” he said. “Just think how many sediments are trapped in this floodplain forest.”

For landowners looking to improve their own backyards, the trick is finding the right place to plant, which the LCLT can help with. Boget said different tree species work for different landscapes, through a safe bet is a red maple tree.

He added that tree nurseries usually have sales around this time, and that trees grow especially well in Vermont’s climate. Boget watched an acorn grow into an oak tree at his house – from two feet tall after one year to two stories tall in five years.

“Vermont is a perfect tree-growing place,” he said.

Water-quality conscious landowners also will want to look at the water flow in their backyards, and find natural ways to slow down stormwater. Rain gardens, terraces, or even just letting the yard return to the wild (i.e. stop mowing) all work.

“Anyone’s lawn, they can replace their lawn with trees or natural shrubs. They can redirect their gutters,” said Boget.

Boget said he recently let most of his own lawn revert to wild growth. “I have less to do every weekend,” he said, adding that his mowing is cut way down.

Another method is to put land under a conservation easement. Looking around him, Boget explained that the Mill River Falls area – a 35-acre parcel including river, waterfalls, forest, floodplain and shoreline – had been donated to the LCLT in 2003 by local landowner Anna Neville.

It was put under easement, and after being given to the state, it was made accessible to the public. An informal trail runs through the area, from roadside parking lot to lake shoreline. “We’ve got a couple of rare fish, we’ve got a couple of rare plants,” said Boget. “This is one of the last stream systems to support steelhead salmon.”

Walking the falls area

As he and his outreach coordinator, Jeff O’Donnell, walked through, they happened upon a mysteriously large, green caterpillar, a half-eaten crawfish and wild sunflowers.

“You always see something you don’t see you in your backyard,” said Boget.

(Stinging nettle abounds too – take note if interested in visiting).

Most importantly at the Mill River Falls area, there are natural stoppers to phosphorous traveling into Lake Champlain. Rain falls on leaves and then trickles into the leaf litter on the forest floor, and then the water slowly goes into the soil.

In places that are low-lying or form a natural ditch towards Mill River (or have a pesky beaver dam), Boget said his organization would most likely redirect the water paths to go towards the trees.

“We want the water to go through the soil,” he said.

Anyone interested in conserving their land may do something slightly different than Neville – the land can be sold at a reduced price to the LCLT or landowners can keep it but get their own conservation easement.

“The most important thing is for landowners to call us and talk about it,” said Boget.

It is especially important in Franklin County, where wetlands – which help filter water and slow down runoff – have been reduced dramatically over the years.

“I think Franklin County has lost more wetlands than any other county in the state,” said Boget. “This is going to take some time to reverse water quality trends when we’ve [taken away] so much of the infrastructure.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for people, including landowners, to help, whether they plant some more trees, put in a rain garden or put their land under a conservation easement.

“We’re trying to raise awareness that everyone can do something,” said Boget. “I think people want to protect water quality.”

— — —

To learn more about LCLT, visit its website at www.lclt.org or call (802) 862-4150.