South Lake cleanup plan is coming together

ADDISON COUNTY — State water quality experts are nearing completion of their game plan for improving water quality in the South Lake Champlain basin, one of 15 designated watersheds statewide.
The plan’s key principle: “Protect the best, and restore the rest.”
“That’s a really easy way to look at the scope of work. Protect the best. Maintain, restore, enhance the rest. The basin plans try to identify those opportunities,” said Ethan Swift of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
The plan is called the South Lake Champlain Tactical Basic Plan, or SLCTBP.
In Addison County, the plan encompasses two key waterway systems. The first is the entire East Creek watershed, contained mostly in Orwell with tributaries snaking into Shoreham and across county lines into Benson.
The other is a series of creeks, rivers and streams on the western edge of the county that drain directly into Lake Champlain. It includes Whitney, Hospital and Wards creeks; Braisted Brook; and Stony Creek. These are mostly in Addison, Bridport and Shoreham, respectively. Some environmental analysts and watershed planners also refer to these streams that discharge directly into Lake Champlain as the McKenzie Brook watershed, named for a direct-discharge stream on the New York side of the lake.
The bulk of the SLCTBP covers the Mettowee and Poultney river systems and the Lake Bomoseen and Lake Saint Catherine watersheds in Rutland County. Work on a new tactical basin plan for the Otter Creek watershed, which covers most of Addison County, will commence in 2018.
Until recently, Swift was the DEC’s lead planner for the South Lake Champlain, Otter Creek, and Hoosic-Battenkill watersheds. He was recently promoted to lead DEC’s monitoring, assessment and planning program for all of Vermont’s waterways. Recently he sat down with the Independent to discuss the South Lake Champlain Tactical Basic Plan’s goals for Addison County and to talk about the state’s approach to maintaining our lakes, ponds and streams overall.
In simplified terms, DEC’s “protect the best, restore the rest” motto provides a thumbnail sketch of the department’s goals for the two Addison County sub-basins.
East Creek and its tributaries include many protected and natural areas. Parts of its waters are protected within two state-designated wildlife management areas. A large swath of land at the mouth of East Creek is protected by the Nature Conservancy. East Creek and its various branches flow through some 800 acres of contiguous wetlands. Orwell’s Spruce Pond, located deep in the heart of the Pond Woods Wildlife Management Area, gets a DEC “Best Lake,” rating. The East Creek system provides important habitat for waterfowl and many species of fish. It includes important nursery areas for native trout. It holds one of the state’s largest stands of narrow-leaved cattail.
The SLCTBP describes it as still containing some prime examples of “the floodplain forests that once dominated riparian areas in the Lake Champlain Valley.”
“The whole East Creek watershed is very complex biologically, from the scale of natural communities all the way down to species level diversity,” Swift said. “We have rare, threatened and endangered species. But just in general some of the lower reaches of East Creek are host to a great deal of species diversity, whether they’re aquatic organisms — the bugs and fish — or the amphibians, the species that live both in and out of water that enjoy a healthy riparian corridor to provide habitat.”
Hospital Creek and the other rivers that drain directly into the lake flow through what the South Lake Champlain Tactical Basin Plan describes as “some of the “most intensive agricultural areas in Vermont.” As such, they carry high loads of phosphorus into the lake. Indeed, according to the SLCTBP: “The area of (Lake Champlain) that the McKenzie Brook Watershed drains to (South Lake A) has some of the highest total phosphorus concentrations of any lake segment.”
While the standard for acceptable phosphorus content would be 27 micrograms per liter, the direct-drainage rivers have been tested at carrying 600 to 1,000 micrograms per liter, Swift said.
Given these phosphorus readings, these rivers have become a high priority for statewide efforts to clean up Lake Champlain.
“We know that they’re stressed because of runoff, because of nonpoint source pollution and runoff from the landscape,” Swift said. “Our monitoring continues to show that there are chronically high levels of nutrients (in these rivers). So that’s a concern.”
The East Creek water system, too, has challenges. Some parts of East Creek, for example, are plagued by invasive species like water chestnut and Eurasian watermilfoil and channel erosion, as are parts of Hospital and Whitney creeks and the other direct drainages. The SLCTBP identifies both as being stressed by phosphorus and other nutrients. And even Spruce Pond, which has the “Best Lake” ranking, has higher-than-acceptable levels of mercury. This last, said Swift, reflects western Vermont’s down-wind position relative to coal-fired plants and other sources of industrial pollution blowing in from states west of here.
Conversely, some data shows signs of progress within the direct-drainage watershed. Implementation of best management practices has tripled since 2015, according to Natural Resource Conservation Service data in the SLCTBP. This tripling of best practices means that the estimated reduction in phosphorus has also tripled.
For example, in 2013 use of cover crops, reduced tillage and other agricultural practices was estimated to have reduced pounds of phosphorus going into Lake Champlain by less than 500 pounds. Increased implementation of these same practices is appraised to have reduced the amount of phosphorus going into the lake by 3,500 pounds in 2016 alone.
Swift also emphasized that conditions can vary within any river or watershed system. So, for example, Braisted Brook in Bridport looks much better than many other waterways within the McKenzie Brook watershed because it has more vegetation along the river, and thus better natural water filtration.
Swift said he was heartened by these accomplishments and emphasized farmers’ important role as stewards of the land.
“I don’t know about any farmers who don’t care about water quality, don’t care about the lake,” he said. “Every one that I’ve interacted with wants to do the right thing. I think what they’re really looking to do, though, is they want to be sure that what they’re doing will have the intended effect.”
Swift said that maintaining the working landscape and keeping farmers in business is key to our long-term stewardship of both Vermont’s lands and water.
“By and large farmers are better stewards of the land than a great deal of other types of land use activities,” Swift said.
Asked if the state’s waterways have overall improved or degraded over the past several decades, Swift emphasized that there’s some good news if you take the long view.
Since the passage of the first federal Clean Water Act in 1972, Vermont — like other states — has done better, he said.
“If we turn back the clock to just before the passage of the (federal) Clean Water Act, a lot of our waterways were essentially the receiving waters for a lot of raw sewage and other discharges,” Swift said. “Our waterways were in worse shape than they are today. There’s no question about it.”
Swift offered a graphic local example of how bad water quality was back in the day.
“Otter Creek was quite polluted,” he said. “There was a bay in Lake Champlain just north of where the Otter Creek enters into Lake Champlain that the locals referred to as ‘Tissue Paper Bay’ because of the amount of sewage that was being dumped into the Otter Creek.
“So we’ve certainly come a long way as far as that goes.”
Swift also said that since the 1970s, environmental analysts have also come to better appreciate the multiple benefits that healthy river systems bring. Some of those benefits have been quantified in dollars and cents. For example, because of the extensive wetlands preserved along Otter Creek, towns like Middlebury didn’t see the devastation the Tropical Storm Irene caused elsewhere.
Environmental analysts have gotten better at thinking like a river, Swift said. Fully three-quarters of Vermont’s rivers have been altered by humans at some time, he said, and the state continues to deal with the consequences of this alteration.
“If we turn back the clock to the 1960s and 1950s and even before then, we had this mindset of applying super-phosphorus to our agricultural fields. We had a mindset of cutting down all the trees along rivers so that we could maximize crop production,” Swift said. “And if we really want to look at historical context of when we first settled and we first cleared the landscape, we straightened a lot of rivers, we dredged, bermed armored rivers.
“We did a lot of stuff that our systems are still responding to today.”
To read the draft plan go to http://dec.vermont.gov/watershed/map/basin-planning/basin4. DEC plans to begin work on the Otter Creek Tactical Basin Plan in 2018. 

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