MIDDLEBURY — Students in the Environmental Studies senior seminar at Middlebury College aren’t just completing graduation requirements, they’re doing research that will actually be used by government agencies, local officials, scientists and consultants.
The 11 seniors and the officials with whom they worked hope the work they did will improve the health of Lake Champlain and make local neighborhoods healthier places to live.
“They brought a lot of ideas to the table,” said Jenna Calvi, green infrastructure coordinator at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
For their capstone course this semester, the students took on the issue of stormwater runoff and phosphorous loading in Lake Champlain, conducting stormwater monitoring in Middlebury and examining low-impact development projects and stormwater utilities that are managing and minimizing runoff issues.
At the root of the project is Lake Champlain, where phosphorous and other nutrients brought in by runoff act as fertilizers, driving algae growth in the lake, which in turn depletes dissolved oxygen in the lake. This process, called eutrophication, can inhibit other life.
At a presentation of class research last Tuesday, student Becca Fanning explained that runoff doesn’t just cause a change in the makeup of the lake. It also has effects on tourism, recreation and public health, since it can lead to pathogen contamination, deterioration of water quality and closure of beaches.
While EPA regulations have all but eliminated nutrient runoff from “point sources,” which include wastewater treatment plants and any other direct source pollution, “nonpoint sources” come from developed areas, agricultural areas and forests and are more spread out and, thus, more difficult to control. And state estimates say runoff from developed areas contributes more phosphorous than runoff from agricultural areas in the Otter Creek watershed.
OTTER CREEK MONITORING
One group of students completed a stormwater assessment on the Otter Creek in Middlebury, working with Middlebury town planner Fred Dunnington. Dunnington said the topic of managing runoff is one that is often discussed within the town — as part of the Cross Street Bridge construction project, the town built a large stormwater management system under the parking lot of the Ilsley Library, and it manages stormwater systems on roads throughout town. But, said Dunnington, he had no numbers to show the impact of these systems.
“I had wanted to take some actual measurement of water quality,” he said. “The question was, how do you measure, what do you measure for, and what is a good sampling strategy?”
The students examined various methods of sampling and pinpointed possible areas of runoff in the town, searching for the largest areas of impervious cover — that is, paved areas that do not allow water to sink into the ground. They ran multiple tests on Otter Creek water off the banks of the Marble Works area and off Bakery Lane, finding higher pollutant levels at the Bakery Lane site.
Although it did provide some useful data, the project also left some questions unanswered, since random water quality tests do not target the times during storms when the river is most likely to catch runoff from overflowing systems. And monitoring over just a few months does not allow for any conclusions about trends over time.
“The pilot project is a starting point for the town,” said student Alison Siegel, who worked on the monitoring project. “But it highlights the need for more monitoring.”
Dunnington said he would eventually like to see more monitoring on both Otter Creek and the Middlebury River, especially since he expects to see more pressure on towns across the state to manage runoff in coming years.
“The question is how much more will we need to be doing, and will we need to find an appropriate way to pay for these requirements?” said Dunnington. “This research will help — it’s just a piece in advancing planning and managing infrastructure.”
Another group worked with Calvi of the DEC. Calvi works on low-impact development projects, which incorporate stormwater management techniques into building, mimicking natural patterns of runoff prevention. These practices involve the creation of rain gardens, rain barrels to catch water, permeable pavement options and green roofs.
Projects across the state are already incorporating some of these techniques, but student Sierra Young, who worked on the project, said her group attempted to find ways to more broadly educate the public and building professionals about these techniques.
The group recommended the creation of a professional education program that will allow people to encourage their clients to use these strategies in building projects. The group also recommended that the state create a low-impact development project-of-the-month award and suggested the creation of retrofit competitions, where the DEC would fund selected project proposals to reduce runoff.
Young said streamlining the permitting process would make it easier for projects to go forward, as many low-impact development projects contain multiple small parts working together to control runoff. This, she said, makes it difficult to complete all of the testing and monitoring required to obtain a permit.
The third group worked with Julie Moore of Stone Environmental Consulting of Montpelier and looked at techniques for creating a statewide stormwater management utility, taking as examples existing systems in Burlington and South Burlington. Systems like these assess a fee from residents that goes to fund stormwater mitigation through runoff systems and low-impact development.
The group also floated the possibility of a grassroots organization that would allow towns to apply for revolving loan funds for certain projects.
The idea has also been broached in the Legislature, said student Yuan Lim. Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, has proposed a statewide water resources preservation fee that would allow for more stormwater management projects throughout the state.
The Middlebury students said stormwater management is a topic of discussion nationally, and emphasized the fact that precipitation in the Northeast is expected to increase by between 20 and 30 percent in coming years, meaning that there will be more stormwater runoff to deal with. This, said the students, addresses statewide vulnerabilities that became very clear in the wake of the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
The group’s final report will go online and be sent to community partners of the class. Moore said the class’s research and recommendations will likely be incorporated into the strategic plan of a low-impact development roundtable that she and Calvi sit on, and will form a resource for many other groups concerned with the future of Lake Champlain.
Diane Munroe, who coordinates the capstone seminars and community-based work within Middlebury’s environmental Studies Department, said the class is structured to give the students experience collaborating both with fellow students and with experts in the field.
“It helps with the transition to professional environmental work,” she said.
And for the community partners, the chance to have outside eyes researching and evaluating is valuable.
“It’s been a mutually beneficial situation,” Calvi said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.