Ag Secretary Chuck Ross urges ‘all in’ for Lake Champlain cleanup
ST. ALBANS — More than 200 people packed the Bliss Auditorium in St. Albans last Wednesday night, many of them holding signs expressing their anger over the growing blue-green algae problem in Lake Champlain, to listen to a presentation on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) plan to clean it up.
One of the attendees brought a startling visual: A bright green jar of blue-green algae, which sat at the head table of speakers during the meeting called to lay out the EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) target to the public.
As the two-hour meeting came to a close, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross returned to a familiar theme over the last two years — “all in.” The phrase has been used to express the idea that all Vermonters living in the Lake Champlain watershed have a role to play in its cleanup.
“We’ve all been a part of getting here,” said Ross, provoking a woman in the audience who said she lives in Missisquoi Bay to ask, “How are we responsible?”
“We watch this stuff come in every year,” she said of pollution going into the lake. “It’s got to be fixed. You know some of the places that are doing it. Stop it.”
Potentially toxic and deeply unpleasant blue-green algae blooms are occurring in both St. Albans and Missisquoi bays, as well as Lake Carmi and now Fairfield Pond, turning the water from a clear blue to a clouded green. Lake Champlain off Addison County has also seen some algae blooms.
Ross responded that he, too, has an emotional reaction to the state of the lake. “We need to do something and we need to do it together,” he said. “We’re part of the same community.”
“I’m sorry (that) as a Vermonter you have to deal with what you deal with,” said Ross.
Ross had originally been responding to a question from Swanton farmer Dick Longway about a lake in Ohio where not tilling soil, combined with tile drainage, has apparently led to blue-green algae blooms. Other researchers have recommended light tillage above tile in clay soils, because they found clay soils form macropores, or funnels, that transport water directly from the surface to the tile.
Currently, the state and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are encouraging farmers to adopt no-till practices, which help to build organic matter in the soil, reduce the loss of carbon and support healthy communities of living organisms in the soil.
“No till may not be the answer we’re looking for,” said Ross. “We’ve gotta keep working at this. We’ve got to keep experimenting. We’ve got to trust each other and we’ve got to hold each other accountable.
“I’d urge you to keep some kind of faith in each other,” said Ross.
The TMDL itself was presented by Stephen Perkins of the EPA, who has overseen the development of the TMDL for the past five years.
Unlike the previous TMDL approved in 2002 and overturned as the result of a Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit, the new TMDL divides the lake into 13 segments.
Using data gathered over the previous decade, EPA created models for how phosphorous moves from the landscape to the water, as well as how the phosphorous mixes in the water, Perkins explained.
Using those models, they were able to determine how much phosphorous each segment of the lake could handle and still achieve water quality.
The final limits include an additional 5 percent as a margin of safety.
The limits were then split between a load allocation and wasteload allocation. The wasteload allocation is made up of phosphorous from permitted, or point, sources, which include developed land, confined animal feeding operations, and wastewater treatment facilities. The load allocation is phosphorous from forest, agriculture and streambank erosion, often referred to as non-point sources.
The most ambitious reduction targets are for Missisquoi Bay, which must reduce metric tons of phosphorous reaching the water from 136.3 per year to 48.6 per year.
To get there, EPA determined phosphorous from agricultural sources will have to be reduced 83 percent, and phosphorous from forested land 60 percent and streambank erosion 65 percent. The phosphorous contribution from wastewater treatment facilities in the Missisquoi watershed will have to be reduced 52 percent and a 30 percent reduction is needed from the runoff created by roads, buildings and parking lots.
“We tried to get as much as seemed possible out of every sector,” said Perkins about the Missisquoi Bay.
Agriculture and streambank erosion are the leading sources of phosphorous in Missisquoi Bay, according to the EPA.
Missisquoi and St. Albans are two of just five lake segments where lower targets are being imposed for wastewater treatment facilities. EPA targeted plants only in those segments where phosphorous from wastewater treatments is a significant contributor to the overall total, explained Perkins.
Asked about treatment for phosphorous-rich sediments in St. Albans Bay, Perkins said EPA agrees with the state of Vermont that “it doesn’t make sense to treat the sediments in St. Albans Bay until we turn off what’s coming in.”
Once the amount of phosphorous arriving in St. Albans Bay has been reduced, the TMDL calls for an evaluation of whether or not phosphorous in the sediments should be treated. “It’s one of the options to pursue in the future,” he said.
Asked by Alburgh farmer Darlene Reynolds if there will be adjustments in phosphorous targets going forward, Perkins said the models used to create the TMDL will be available to the state. “It’s not ‘it’s done and we’re never going to go back there,’” he said.
The state will be presenting its phase-one implementation plan once the TMDL is finalized by the EPA. The agency is currently seeking public comment on the TMDL and will finalize it in October.
Phase one includes the implementation of a wide range of new regulatory requirements including such measures as a general stormwater permit for the Agency of Transportation, new required agriculture practices for all farms, a municipal roads stormwater permit, and adoption of new standards to protect flood plains and reduce in-stream erosion.
EPA will issue an interim report card in 2016 and a final report card in 2017 on how well Vermont has implemented phase one.
Phase one also includes additional measures for St. Albans and Missisquoi bays, including requiring adoption of best management practices to reduce runoff on farms where the state finds they are needed.
Additional steps will be taken to address erosion from forested lands in Missisquoi Bay and the south lake.
Phase two uses the tactical basin plans the state already has to develop five-year plans for Lake Champlain’s sub-basins, starting with an update to the Missisquoi basin plan.
EPA will then issue reports every 2.5 years on the state’s success in implementing those tactical plans.
“Between EPA and the state, we’re going to be tracking activities,” said Perkins when asked about the emphasis in the accountability framework on process rather than the outcome of reducing phosphorous.
For some of those projects the state will be able to calculate how much phosphorous will not be entering the lake as a result, he said. Those numbers will be public.
In addition, the results of ongoing monitoring will be made public.
With the tactical basin plans, the state “will know exactly what they put on the land where,” said Perkins.