EPA, state plan huge, new cleanwater effort
ST. ALBANS — Vermont will invest millions of state and local funds in Lake Champlain cleanup efforts over the next few years as part of Vermont’s Clean Water Act passed by the Legislature this session and signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin in June.
To restore the quality of Lake Champlain’s waters, Vermont will have to reduce phosphorous loading in the lake by 33.8 percent.
On Friday, the EPA released new standards, known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL), for the lake. They divide Champlain into 13 sectors, only four of which are currently below phosphorous limits. Nevertheless, phosphorous reductions are included for those segments, since once it is in the lake, the phosphorous does move around.
Another six segments are very close to their phosphorous limits, with Missisquoi Bay, St. Albans Bay, and a portion of the south lake the farthest from their targets.
To insure the money spent results in a cleaner Lake Champlain, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has set a series of implementation deadlines, and consequences if the goals aren’t met. In addition, officials at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources say they will provide an annual report outlining phosphorous reductions achieved each year.
Phosphorous, a naturally occurring nutrient, is at excessive levels in much of Lake Champlain, where it encourages the growth of blue-green algae. The algae are a source of toxins that can cause death in animals and gastrointestinal illness in humans. To reduce phosphorous to a level that will insure water quality, the EPA has issued pollution limits for every segment of land around the lake, which are further broken down by source — developed land, streams and agriculture.
If the state does not meet the targets, the EPA has said it will require additional phosphorous reductions from wastewater treatment plants and other sources with a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits, such as municipal storm sewer separation system (MS4) permits. Locally, towns like Middlebury and Vergennes would be among many others subject to MS4 permits.
Should the state fail to meet its obligations, EPA also may expand the number of pollution sources required to obtain federal discharge permits, including the number of municipalities regulated under MS4.
Finally, EPA could increase federal enforcement activities in the Lake Champlain watershed.
To meet the agricultural reduction target, the state is revising its Accepted Agricultural Practices guidelines. To make it clear the practices are required on all farms it is changing the name to Required Agricultural Practices, or RAPs.
The revised RAPs include increasing buffers on corn fields to 25 feet from 10 feet, and cutting in half the level of erosion allowed on each farm. Ten-foot buffers will be required for field ditches, and gullies on fields will have to be stabilized. Rules keeping livestock from waterways will also be strengthened.
Small farms will be required to certify they are following the RAPs. The state has already begun inspecting small farms; the lone inspector is concentrating his efforts on areas around St. Albans and Missisquoi bays. The state intends to hire three additional farm inspectors.
The state is in the process of visiting all farms in the Missisquoi and St. Albans watersheds and requiring the adoption of best management practices (BMPs) where inspectors believe they are needed.
Starting next year, the state intends to do the same in the south lake — adjacent to Addison, Bridport, Shoreham and Orwell.
The plan also includes an analysis of nutrients from tile drainage on farms, and the possibility of revising the RAPs to address nutrients from tile drains. It does not include an analysis of the potential impact of tile drainage on streambank erosion.
Scientists in the Midwest have found that in clay soils water does not filter slowly into tile drains as it does in sandier soils. Instead, funnel-like macropores form in the soils, carrying rainwater directly from the surface into the tile drains. From the drains, the water goes directly into rivers and streams, increasing the volume and speed of the flow and destabilizing the streams. Much of the Champlain Basin has mostly clay soils.
Streambank erosion is a leading source of phosphorous in several parts of the lake. To address that erosion, the state is focused on expanding technical and regulatory assistance to help municipalities protect their floodplains, as well as establishing statewide river corridor mapping and using LiDAR (laser remote sensing technology) to map flood areas around the state.
The state also intends to increase wetlands and floodplain conservation and restoration projects, as well as establish streambank stabilization practices for agriculture. Overall, the state hopes to stabilize rivers and streams by giving them the room they need to stabilize on their own.
By the end of 2017, the state must have a series of programs aimed at reducing pollution from every land use in the basin. Sample programs include increased technical support for foresters to reduce erosion from logging roads, a transportation permit for state and municipalities aimed at reducing runoff, a certification program for small farms, and a host of other steps outlined in the state’s phase-one implementation plan.
In early 2017, EPA will issue an initial report card on phase one and a final report card in 2018, stating how well the state has implemented those programs.
After that report card, accountability will shift to phase two, which is the implementation of tactical plans specific to 10 separate basins, beginning with the Lamoille and Missisquoi river basins.
Each basin plan will have an implementation table, prioritizing the actions to be taken in each to reduce phosphorous and setting deadlines for their achievement. Among the lake segments adjacent to Addison County are South Lake B, South Lake A, Port Henry, Otter Creek basin and parts of the Main Lake — all five segments are listed as impaired for high phosphorus levels and high priorities for TMDL development.
The plans will be updated every five years, and EPA will evaluate the state’s success in implementing the plan at the mid-way point and at the end of five years. For example, the state must have a plan in place for Missisquoi Bay area in 2016, with an interim report card from EPA in 2019 and a final one in 2021, the same year the state will issue a new updated basin plan.
Vermont had initially sought to avoid potentially expensive upgrades to its wastewater treatment facilities as part of the TMDL. In the end, EPA agreed to tighter pollution limits on only larger facilities in watersheds where wastewater is a significant source of phosphorous. About half of the state’s facilities, will have new, lower phosphorous limits.
To reduce runoff from other developed lands, the state is creating a permit for the state’s roadways. As part of the permit, the Agency of Transportation (VTrans) will be required to identify and prioritize places where stormwater and sediment are getting into Lake Champlain. VTrans will also have to change how it maintains roadways to minimize impact on water quality.
Towns are being asked to follow suit. Indeed, the TMDL assumes reductions from all unpaved dirt roads in most sections of the basin. When it comes to developed land, back roads are the largest source of phosphorous, “due primarily to erosion and sedimentation from poorly managed roadside ditches,” according to the TMDL.
To assist towns in addressing stormwater from roads, VTrans has already begun providing training and technical assistance to municipal public works staff.
The state also will require stormwater permits for existing impervious surfaces, such as buildings and parking lots covering more than three acres, even if those projects were built before such permits were required. In addition, the state is considering regulating projects with less than an acre of impervious surface.
Stormwater discharge limits for communities with MS4 permits will be revised.
In addition to increased use of its regulatory authority, the state will assist municipalities in the adoption of local ordinances to protect stream corridors and reduce stormwater impacts from future developments.
In connection with the University of Vermont, the state will also provide technical assistance to developers and municipalities wishing to use green infrastructure to reduce and treat stormwater runoff.
Editor’s note: The Addison Independent will take a more in-depth look at the local impact of the TDML limits in Thursday’s paper.