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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Michelle Frehsee/Courtesy photo

Community outreach in action: Emily Davis of the Windham Regional Commission facilitates a community flood storytelling event in Guilford last September, using a to-scale map of Guilford on the floor. People recounted their memories of what they experienced during Tropical Storm Irene and how the flooding affected their rivers and their roads.


In Vt., not all water pollution is created equal

While the need to clean up Lake Champlain is undeniable, the question remains: Will enough funding make it to water-quality and flood-resistance projects on this side of the state?

BRATTLEBORO—Do you know your watershed address?

A watershed address is a way for people to locate themselves within the interconnecting waterways that ultimately connect us all.

For example, someone who lives in Green River can say they have a watershed address is off the Roaring Brook watershed, within the Green River watershed, within the Deerfield River watershed, within the Connecticut River watershed, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean.

Emily Davis, water quality planner with the Windham Regional Commission, likes to tell people their watershed addresses.

Davis sees people’s connection to the waters in their community is a crucial component to helping to restore the state’s waterways.

Why should it matter if people feel connected to the water flowing through their neighborhood? Because when it comes to water, everyone lives upstream and everyone lives downstream from somewhere.

But conversations about water quality issues or pollutants effecting water in southern Vermont have been mostly muted by the overwhelming attention paid to Lake Champlain. In part, the issues facing waterways like the Deerfield River, Crosby Brook, or the Connecticut River are different. While Lake Champlain struggles with phosphorous, nitrogen is a bigger concern locally. Tracking e-coli levels - specifically after a heavy rain - is also a concern.

Reducing pollutants in Vermont’s waters is a ongoing issue. For example, in 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the state it needed to clean up Lake Champlain. This order came after a lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation. That same year, the state also passed Act 64, the Clean Water Act. The state has also developed total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) to address several water quality issues including phosphorus in Lake Champlain to a statewide TMDL for bacteria.

The state has now entered a budgeting phase for water quality projects. While the need to clean up Lake Champlain is undeniable, the question remains on whether enough funding will make it to projects on the eastern side of the state.

In the last legislative session, the state passed Act 76. This law establishes a long-term funding source for water clean up. It also outlines how, where, and to which water quality projects those funds will support.

The Agency of Natural Resources’ (ANR) Clean Water Board is asking Vermonters to weigh in on how it allocates approximately $33 million in water quality funding for the 2021 fiscal year. The agency is holding a public hearing on August 22 to discuss the budget. Public comment will be accepted until Sept. 6. For more information visit the agency’s clean water funding page: https://dec.vermont.gov/watershed/cwi/cwf/

Conversations around Vermont’s water quality issues have focused on toxic Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, and phosphorous levels in Lake Champlain. Yet other waterways need attention. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, pollution - mostly from storm run off - limits people’s use of approximately 15 percent of Vermont’s lakes, and 20 percent of streams. One sign that a waterway is in need of help, if regulators decide pollutants have reached such a level that they prescribe a total maximum daily load or TMDL. Lake Champlain has a TMDL for phosphorous. There is also a statewide TMDL for bacteria, such as e-coli, and mercury.

Kathy Urffer, river steward with the Connecticut River Conservancy, said “Nitrogen, phosphorus, manure, sediment, oil and grease…these are polluting all of our waters all over the state, the reason why we don’t hear about nitrogen is because of this focus on the lake (Champlain).”

Urffer has spent considerable time in Montpelier ensuring funding for water quality gets beyond the Lake Champlain Valley. Urffer has also worked with lawmakers while they crafted Act 76.

“Because of this focus on the TMDL in Lake Champlain, and partly because of the state’s bias towards its more populated area, frankly, many of the people in the state and many of the people where we live, you know the entire eastern half of the state, have this misconception that both the Vermont Clean Water Act and the money that we have been trying to raise for years to meet our clean water needs, have been focused on the lake. And that has not been the case.”

“In fact we’ve been working very hard to make sure when this bill (Act 76) was passed this year that the language was structured in a way to make sure that money was provided for all areas of the state to address water quality issues as needed in the region,” she said.

Staying on Montpelier’s mind

Urffer said that a lot of her job includes partnering with other water quality advocates on the eastern side of the state to ensure the Connecticut River, its tributaries, and the basins that feed it stay on the forefront to Montpelier’s mind.

“Hello! We’re still over here, we still need your support,” Urffer jokes.

She’s been a river steward 2 years. Her fellow steward Ron Rhodes, has held the job for 8 years. Her predecessor, David Deen held the post for 17 years.

“There’s an interesting dynamic that occurs in both Vermont and New Hampshire in that the Connecticut River is like the back door for both states,” she said.

Vermont and New Hampshire’s population centers are on the opposite side of the state than the Connecticut River, she said. In Vermont, the population clusters in the Burlington to Montpelier corridor, Urffer said. In New Hampshire, that concentration of people is in Concord spreading to the coast.

“So in general, resources go to those areas,” she said.

Clean Water funding considerations started years ago. The first was the passage of the State Clean Water Act in 2015. The comprehensive law addresses a variety of water concerns from agricultural runoff, to road runoff, to leaky septic systems, Urffer explained. Simultaneously, the state has had an issue with the Lake Champlain and its TMDL for phosphorous.

“The TMDL, you can look at it from the point of view of a doctor saying this is an emergency and you must address it,” Urffer said.

In this example, the doctor in the EPA requiring a higher level of regulatory attention.

Urffer continued saying that from a legal and responsible point of view, the state must address the problems with Lake Champlain.

What has gotten lost in the statewide conversation, however, is that Lake Champlain isn’t Vermont’s only troubled waterway.

“We have other TMDLs,” she said. For example bacteria. Then some streams have specific TMDLs for water quality issues such as dissolved oxygen.

Urffer said the Connecticut River has a dissolved oxygen TMDL for where the fresh water river meets the salty Atlantic in the Long Island Sound.

Instead of phosphorous being the worry, in the Connecticut it is nitrogen.

“If you go back to the doctor analogy, you can wait until a patient is really sick and they need surgery and they need to be hospitalized, or, you can understand that they’re staring to get sick, or that something is out of balance and you can make changes to make the patient healthier upfront,” Urffer said.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are “chemical catalysts in a water body,” she said.

When phosphorous mixes with freshwater, it triggers an environment for algae growth. Those algae blooms can create an anoxic environment by devouring the water of oxygen. According to Urffer and Davis, the cycle the algae creates starts with a large bloom. The bloom eventually dies. The decomposition of these large blooms requires oxygen. As the water loses oxygen, the fish die.

Nitrogen triggers a similar cycle when it mixes with saltwater.

“They’re two different things,” Urffer said. “They’re both pollutants, they’re both nutrients that plants require, they’re both in our soils all over the state - both naturally occurring and over the years have been added for farmland reasons.”

But what might feed plants and soil takes on different characteristics in water, Urffer explained. In the cases of Lake Champlain and Long Island Sound, the phosphorous and nitrogen levels are out of balance with the rest of the environment.

Another concern in Windham County is bacteria, Urffer and Davis said. Local groups such as Southeastern Vermont Watershed Alliance (SeVWA) test for e-coli as a way to check for pollutants from sewage, manure, or septic issues. The presence of e-coli is a little like the canary in the coal mine, explained Davis. Its presence hints that other bacteria might also be present.

In general, bacteria in the local rivers peaks after a heavy rain when “all sorts of things flow into the river,” said Urffer. If an area of a river tests high for e-coli consistently, Urffer will follow up on the issue.

To read test results for local waterways and the Connecticut River, visit SeVWA’s website: https://www.sevwa.org/ or The Connecticut River Conservancy’s Is it Clean? Website: https://connecticutriver.us/content/sites-list

Urffer said that she partners with a mix of municipalities, landowners, private companies, and nonprofit organizations.

“If there’s an issue we try to figure it out how to address it but in terms of the Clean Water Act money is to try and fix those issues,” she said.

The other part of her focus is fixing flood hazard issues. Irene taught Vermont a lot about rivers. Many of the projects her organization is working on includes two along the Green River. In one case there is a berm that if removed, would open several acres of a flood plain.

This is important because giving the water a place to settle means it is also slowing down. Without such flood plains, storm and flood waters develop speed and force.

According to Urffer, one of many discussions around water quality in Montpelier this session, was her trying to ensure language in Act 76 existed that supported natural resource projects. These include things like removal of old dams, working with farmers to increase a buffer along a stream, install storm drain systems so instead of storm water going into a pipe it can run into a vegetative swale. These swales, said Urffer, are essentially a filtration system where water is diverted into a contoured, vegetated area. As the water percolates into the soil, the ground and plants suck up nutrients such as nitrogen. If something like this is next to river, then it filters the water before it reaches the river, Urffer said.

Such projects require funding.

“One of our goals [for Act 76] was to make sure that the money that was identified to be used for clean water was distributed around the state and that there was some amount of local control and local understanding with how that money should be used with local input,” Urffer said.

This need lead to the creation of of advisory councils in Act 76. According to Urffer, ANR has a basin planning process which charges water planners focusing on specific areas of the state to create a basin plan for various river systems, and identify projects.

“There’s a list of projects that we already know about, we just need funding for them,” she said.

Funding priorities will be decided by ANR’s rule making process taking place of the next six to twelve months, Urffer said.

Fitting an ocean through a pinhole

“Not too many people ask me about water quality so it’s kind of like I feel like I’m trying to fit an ocean through a pinhole here,” said Davis.

Davis said that sediment also poses challenges to the county’s waterways.

In many ways’ Davis said the challenges faced in Chittenden County and Windham County might look different, but they are similar. The Connecticut’s flowing water, however, masks its issues.

Different land uses will yield different water issues, she said. For example, phosphorous tends to come from agriculture. Nitrogen from the built landscape (storm run off or septic systems).

“Lake Champlain is sort of its own contained lake and it’s fresh water,” she continued. “The Connecticut River flows into Long Island Sound which is a saltwater body.”

Phosphorous and nitrogen behave differently when in fresh water or salt water, but they can both lead to eutrophication. This happens when excess nutrients enter a water body and throws the ecosystem out of balance.

“There are excess nutrients entering into the Connecticut River but because it flows into the Long Island Sound,” she said. “But that eutrophication from the Connecticut River isn’t visible until it hits that salt water.”

“Because of that really interesting difference in the watershed dynamics of the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain it looks different on the regulatory framework even though I’m not convinced that the land use patterns are really all that different,” Davis said.

Like Urffer, Davis also focuses on flood resilience. In her view, water quality, watershed planning, and flood resilience represent different sides of the same dice.

“I think it’s the one thing that I do struggle with right now with with Act 76,” she said. “It can feel oftentimes fairly myopic [in its focus]” on phosphorus and Lake Champlain.

She said one question mark hanging over the Act 76 rule making process is whether the water quality project funding will be distributed statewide or focus mostly on the lake.

Building connections

One stream restoration project on Davis’ desk includes a dam removal project in Dummerston on a tributary for the Crosby Brook. According to Davis, the abandoned dam has created sediment and erosion issues for the stream. The restoration work will happen on approximately 200-feet of stream bed.

“You’ve heard the idea that nature sort of has like its own perfect design,” she said. “We found that in terms of like our restoration work and our project management - and our watershed management as a whole - we just try to let the river be the river.”

The more a stream is constricted with retaining walls, pipes, or berms, the more issues the stream tends to have for example erosion, she said. Some human-built structures - such as berms - can exacerbate flooding. This happened because berms often cut rivers off from their flood plains. As a result, the water has no place to settle or slow down. The river then builds up more force and speed during a flood, she said.

In Davis’ opinion, Irene taught the community a lot about its rivers. Eight years after the flood, and many rivers have yet to recover, and Davis wonders if they ever will. After an event like Irene, it could take 20 to 30 years for a full recovery of all the stream beds and nearby vegetation and a return to what was considered normal. Climate change, however, has thrown a wrench in the system.

New England is expected to experience more intense rain storms, she said. These will have an impact on the rivers.

Davis said many of the partners working on water quality projects in Windham County have found new ways to connect community members with their local water ways. This kind of place making and community development is a slightly different tact, but she believes it pays dividends.

When people connect with their natural environment, they engage, and they protect, she said.

As the state continues its rule making process, Urffer plans to comment on the rules and ensure they address all areas of the state. The question of the money - where it comes from and how we all contribute - she’s heard from people on the east side of the state asking her “why should we pay to clean up Lake Champlain?”

“Ultimately you’re not paying to clean up Lake Champlain,” she said. “You’re paying to clean up your local waters.” “That is what the money is for.”

River projects can take as long as two to three years.

The main misconception is there’s a perception that all the efforts are for the lake. They’re not she said.

“There’s an economic connection to clean water,” Urffer added. “Any recreation in the water relies on that assumption that the water is clean.”

So clean water: river, ground water, and drinking water are all important to the state’s economic stability, Urffer said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #523 (Wednesday, August 14, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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