County farmers, residents to feel effects of new EPA lake cleanup rules
ADDISON COUNTY — Mike Winslow, staff scientist for the Lake Champlain Committee, recalls the day a few years back that he closed the beach at Kingsland Bay State Park.
“I went to Kingsland Bay because the park ranger saw something that they weren’t sure what it was, and between the main portion of the dock and the shore there was a green scummy area that looked like spilled paint on the water,” Winslow said. “It was a bright green, and it had that sort of oily texture on the water. And so I confirmed that it was a blue green algae bloom, and as a result they closed the beach that day.”
For the middle part of Lake Champlain, it’s not the frequent occurrence it has been at other bays like St. Albans Bay, Missisquoi Bay or those along Burlington’s shores, but when algae blooms occur it can be a serious issue.
Retired teacher Mary Jane Banyi realized that phosphorus pollution was a growing problem in Lake Champlain the day her granddaughter went swimming near Button Bay State Park and ended up sick and vomiting.
“It was the summer after Hurricane Irene, and I was at the lake with my daughter, and my granddaughter was swimming back and forth and showing off and diving under,” said Banyi. “And my daughter kept saying, ‘Look at this color, oh my God, it’s blue! Mom, look it’s blue!’ My daughter’s spent all of her summers at the lake and we had never seen anything like it.”
To address the growing frequency of algae blooms and the general degradation of the lake, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state announced last Friday, Aug. 14, new limits on the total maximum daily load, or TMDL, of phosphorus that can be dumped into Lake Champlain from the Vermont side (EPA seeks public feedback). With these new target TMDLs, the signing into law of Vermont’s Clean Water Act this past June, and the August revision of the state’s plan for meeting the EPA’s criteria, Vermont has its marching orders to meet to help clean up Lake Champlain.
By the end of 2017, the state must have a series of programs aimed at reducing pollution from every land use in each basin, including the Otter Creek Basin. Programs in specific basins will be updated every five years, with the EPA issuing report cards.
Fully 69 percent of the phosphorus overload in the lake comes from Vermont. New York state contributes 23 percent; Quebec 8 percent. To meaningfully address phosphorus pollution, the EPA has ordered Vermont to reduce the phosphorus load it sends into the lake by 34 percent and has set individual targets for different watersheds.
“We have all been complicit in creating this problem, and we’re all going to need to be engaged in addressing the solution,” said Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross in a Tuesday interview. “We didn’t get here in a short period of time; we got here in decades. And we didn’t get here because one part of our society or one part of our community or one sector of our economy was the sole contributor.
“And what I’m frankly encouraged by is the nature of the conversation that has evolved not just in the agricultural community, but across the state,” Ross continued. “I don’t want to paint this as all easy, because it’s not going to be. There’s going to be challenges, and there’s going to be difficulties. And I anticipate that we’ll have some difficult conversations. But the cost of doing nothing, the difficulty of doing nothing, far outweighs the cost of addressing this problem now.”
ADDISON COUNTY SOURCES OF PHOSPHOROUS
Addison County — depending on how you crunch the numbers, given that rivers and lakes care little for human boundaries like townships or county lines — contributes anywhere from 20-26 percent of Vermont’s total phosphorus load, coming mostly from the Otter Creek watershed.
Looking at the Otter Creek watershed, the EPA breaks down the sources of phosphorus being carried into the lake into six categories (See accompanying pie chart):
• 50 percent from agriculture: Of that 50 percent, 43 percent of the phosphorus from agriculture washes off of croplands, 5 percent off of pasture, and 2 percent from barnyards and manure pits and lagoons.
• 17 percent from stream bank erosion.
• 17 percent from forestlands: the phosphorus running off of forest roads and harvested forest areas. This amount is higher in Addison County than in many other watersheds because of the county’s large swaths of forested areas. Close to 70 percent of Addison County is forested.
• 10 percent from developed lands: the phosphorus running off of paved roads, parking lots, athletic fields, construction sites, roofs, lawns — in short, off of human developments and construction — and into the lake.
• 4 percent from backroads (mostly rural dirt roads).
• 2 percent from wastewater treatment facilities: The wastewater released from municipal wastewater treatment facilities — such as the wastewater treatment plants in Vergennes and Middlebury — contributes just 2 percent of the phosphorus being carried downstream and into the Otter Creek watershed.
WHAT’S A COUNTY TO DO?
Most important for Addison County are the individual targets that the EPA has set for the Otter Creek watershed, as most of Addison County is part of the watershed that eventually runs into Otter Creek and from Otter Creek flows out into the lake west of Vergennes at Fields Bay. The Otter Creek segment of Lake Champlain spans an area of the lake roughly from Thompson’s Point to Basin Harbor.
Phosphorus sediment from Addison County also washes into the lake from areas outside the Otter Creek watershed’s boundaries. A thin squiggle of Addison County west of the Lemon Fair River — a largely agricultural area — drains into Lake Champlain from smaller rivers and brooks, such as Whitney Creek, Braisted Brook and East Creek, or drains directly into the lake. The EPA identifies these other watersheds as being part of what it calls the Port Henry and South Lake A segments of the lake, running roughly from Basin Harbor to the Addison-Rutland county line.
Having identified the sources of pollution that flow into the three segments of the lake most closely identified with Addison County — the Otter Creek, Port Henry, and South Lake A sections — the EPA has created specific reduction targets for each of the different sources of pollution. The EPA’s plan of action is derived by balancing a number of factors, and its game plan varies from watershed to watershed, bay to bay, lake segment to lake segment.
Here’s what’s needed in Addison County:
• 80 percent reduction in phosphorus running off of barnyards and manure pits and lagoons.
• 20 to 60 percent reduction in phosphorus running off croplands and pasture combined, depending on the lake segment.
• 40 percent reduction in phosphorus caused by stream erosion in the Otter Creek watershed.
• 22 percent reduction in phosphorus running off developed land.
• 5 percent reduction in phosphorus from forestlands.
Lake segments in those parts of Lake Champlain having the greatest phosphorus overloads — such as Missisquoi Bay — have a different game plan than the lake sections adjacent to Addison County, which experts consider in the “high middle” range for phosphorus pollution. The EPA also sets individual reduction targets based on which sources of pollution in a given watershed are most adjustable. So unlike municipalities adjacent to Burlington Bay, St. Albans Bay or Missisquoi Bay, no wastewater treatment facility in Addison County is currently being called on to make reductions in the phosphorus content of the water it releases into Otter Creek.
Wastewater treatment facilities in Addison County are considered to be operating appropriately, and are currently releasing on average less than the amount of phosphorus for which they are permitted. Should Vermont not meet its EPA targets, possible repercussions for many municipalities would be an EPA-mandated upgrade to its water treatment facilities. But for now, that step is not required.
Given that the largest part of the phosphorus load comes from agriculture, the EPA asks for the highest phosphorus reductions from farming. The newly released EPA targets relevant to Addison County call for an 80 percent reduction in the phosphorus running off of barnyards and manure pits and lagoons. And, depending on the watershed or lake segment that a farm is in, anywhere from a 20 percent to a 60 percent reduction in the phosphorus running off of croplands and pasture combined.
Leaders of the farming segment, such as Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross and Addison County State Representative Harvey Smith, report that farmers understand their role and their responsibility in Lake Champlain clean up and are actively taking part in ongoing conversations about how to adjust farming practices to help clean up the lake.
“I think there’s a change in attitude,” said Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, who sits on the House Agricultural Committee. “It’s always hard to have government officials or somebody telling you you have to make changes on your farm. But we formed a watershed coalition, the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, and it has quite a few members. Now I’m a member of that, and I don’t know what the exact numbers are, but it was started with the idea that ‘Look, folks, we need to be part of the solution. We need to be part of the answer for cleaning up the lake. Let’s be at the table so we can be a team player, so that we can be part of the solution and work with the regulatory community to come up with the correct answers for the farm community.’”
Repairing eroded stream banks, restoring rivers and wetlands and preventing stream erosion is set out as a major challenge for Addison County. The EPA targets for phosphorus TMDL ask for a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus runoff caused by stream erosion in the Otter Creek watershed — a target that will likely call on a large cadre of stakeholders working together: experts from various facets of the Agency of Natural Resources, regional planning experts, towns and municipalities, and grass-roots environmentalists.
Reductions in the amount of phosphorus running off of developed land — roads, parking lots, construction sites, athletic fields, yards, etc. — are set at 22 percent. This is possibly the area of TMDL reduction that will effect most people in their daily lives and will most effect Addison County towns and municipalities and their budgets.
“Certainly we’re very concerned about the quality of water in Lake Champlain,” said Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay. “We’re also analyzing what impacts this will have for us in terms of both our wastewater treatment facility and back road maintenance. We’re particularly concerned about what impact this is going to have on our budget and where, if any, the state is going to come up with resources to support the necessary improvements.”
Given that the EPA has just released its new TMDL reduction levels, town planning is just getting underway, with details and timelines still being developed.
For forestlands, the EPA is asking for a reduction of 5 percent, which is consistent with its reduction criteria for most watersheds around Lake Champlain.
In the lake segments with the highest phosphorus levels, South Lake B (which lies mainly in northwestern Rutland County) and Missisquoi Bay (in the northwest part of the lake near Swanton), the EPA is asking for a 60 percent reduction in phosphorus level, as compared to the average reduction of 34 percent lakewide.
Experts at the state and regional levels emphasize that reducing the amount of phosphorus being dumped into Lake Champlain must be a shared task, while also emphasizing the wealth of knowledge and the sense of urgency that brings all parties together.
“The good news,” said Secretary Ross, “is we’ve gotten smarter about this and we’ve gotten more focused about this issue. We have more resources now than we’ve had in the past. We have more practices and understand how to utilize them better than we have in the past. And all that is part of the recipe that I believe will spell success over time.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
To read the EPA documents on phosphorus in Lake Champlain click here.