State set to finalize lake cleanup plan

ST. ALBANS — The cleanup of Lake Champlain returns to the spotlight as the state finalized the first phase of a plan to reduce the amount of phosphorous reaching the lake by 34 percent over the next 20 years.
The reduction is required under the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) finalized earlier this year by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The first phase of the plan involves the creation of statewide programs and permits. It will end in 2017.
The second phase consists of tactical basin plans for each sub-watershed. The basin plans identify sources of pollution, methods to address the problem, costs and possible funding. The basin plans prioritize cleanup projects based on feasibility and reduction of pollution.
Although the phase one plan has not yet been finalized, work has already begun on the various pieces of the plan, which addresses runoff from all types of land uses in the basin.
“We’ve all been part of creating this problem,” Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross said during a hearing on the phase one plan late last month at the St. Albans Museum. “It’s going to be all of use who’ve been part of the problem to be part of the solution.
The agricultural sector will see some of the biggest changes under the phase one plan. It includes:
•  Creation of new Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) for all farms.
•  A certification program for custom cut operators who spread manure.
•  A certification program for small farms.
•  Best Management Practices on farms where RAPs are insufficient to prevent runoff.
•  Regular farm inspections.
•  Required nutrient management training for farmers.
•  Creation of an Environmental Stewardship Program to recognize farmers who do take steps to address runoff.
•  Cost-share programs.
In the more impaired segments of the lake, including Missisquoi Bay and St. Albans Bay, the Agency of Agriculture has agreed to visit every farm to help farmers identify what needs to be done on their farm, according to Laura DiPietro, deputy director of Agricultural Resources Management.
The Agency of Transportation (VTrans) will also be deeply involved in cleanup efforts. For all state roads, VTrans will have to identify areas where stormwater runoff needs to be addressed and prioritize projects to end the runoff.
Top priority will be given where stormwater from the roads is getting into waterways that flow into Lake Champlain, explained Secretary of Transportation Chris Cole.
“We have to be part of the solution, because we convey a lot of water in the state and we have to slow it down,” said Cole.
VTrans will have reduction targets, laying out how much water it has to keep out of state’s waterways.
However, municipalities own 75 percent of Vermont’s roads. VTrans will provide technical assistance to towns as well as administer grant funding for towns seeking to manage runoff from their roads.
Towns, too, will be required to inventory their roads and culverts, identifying sources of runoff and erosion, and use that information to create a plan to reduce stormwater runoff.
All parcels in the watershed with more than three acres of impervious surface will also have to have a permit with the goal of reducing stormwater runoff to the extent it’s possible, said Padraic Monks of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Although wastewater treatment facilities contribute just 4 percent of the overall phosphorous in Lake Champlain, they are larger sources in some lake segments.
As a consequence, the EPA is requiring that the state lower the permitted levels of phosphorous for 25 state facilities, about half of which will need upgrades, according to Eamon Twohig of DEC.
In general, the permits will allow for 0.2 milligrams of phosphorous per liter. That limit will then be multiplied by the total flow capacity of the plant to set an annual phosphorous limit, explained Peter LaFlamme of DEC.
Once plants are at 80 percent of their limit, they will be required to begin planning for an upgrade.
Although wastewater is not a significant source of phosphorous in Missisquoi Bay, some plants in the basin will be issued new permits with lower limits simply because the phosphorous reduction needed in the Missisquoi is so great, explained Twohig.
Nearly 75 percent of streams and rivers in the Lake Champlain basin are no longer able to access their floodplains, said Mike Kline of DEC.
When that happens the waterways are more prone to erosion, he said, meaning the water cuts into banks and the bottom of the stream and then brings that sediment and the phosphorous it contains to the lake.
Additionally, sediment is less able to settle out of the water in streams that can’t reach their floodplains, explained Kline.
Building on work that began after Tropical Storm Irene, the state is developing a flood plain regulatory program to maintain floodplains and give waterways room to meander.
The state is already purchasing river corridor easements in areas where streams are “really dynamic,” said Kline. Seventy such purchases have been made so far.
To insure that the state follows through on its commitments the EPA will be issuing a report card every 2.5 years.
“EPA wants to know every bean and how much it’s worth,” said DiPietro. That’s one of the reasons the state needs to know about all of the clean water projects on each farm, she added. Once the state knows where all of the beans are, scientists can determine their value.
The Vermont Clean Water Act passed last year, created a Clean Water Fund but only provided funding for three years.
The agencies involved in water cleanup are working with the tax department to identify possible future funding sources, explained Alyssa Schuren, the commissioner of Environmental Conservation.
One member of the audience in St. Albans suggested the state look at Canadian boaters who are not registering their boats in Vermont as a potential source of funds, along with boat owners who have been avoiding sales taxes by purchasing their boats from Canada.
Cole said he would look into it.
Asked whether or not the state would consider raising the gas tax to pay for at least the transportation portion of the cleanup, Cole said that was unlikely. Neither the governor nor the Legislature has shown much interest in raising the gas tax, he pointed out.
Instead, the focus is on finding funding sources that are also connected more directly to the pollution, according to Cole.
VTrans will be receiving about $20 million more each year from the federal government over the next five years and plans to invest approximately half of those funds in stormwater mitigation, he explained.
There will be public meetings to discuss funding for the Clean Water Fund this fall.
Questions were also asked about tile drainage. Currently, there are no regulations preventing a farmer from draining an existing field, explained Ross.
The Agency of Agriculture is undertaking a study of the existing research on tile drainage and will present recommendations to the Legislature. The research itself is often contradictory. In some cases, tile may lower the amount of dissolved phosphorous reaching waterways. In others, it appears to raise it, according to Ross.
There are also concerns tile may contribute to stream instability and erosion by increasing the amount of water reaching waterways during heavy rainfalls, as was found to be the case in the Midwest.

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