Vermont’s Lake Clean-up Road Show

A full house at the Burlington lake clean-up meeting at ECHO. Photo by Colleen Hickey.

The state of Vermont and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a series of six meetings around the state to discuss clean-up plans for Lake Champlain. The meetings were very well attended with 60-130 people at each location. Thanks to all LCC members who turned out for the meetings or sent in comments.

EPA is rewriting the lake pollution budget – known as a TMDL or Total Maximum Daily Load. In rewriting the budget, EPA first determined how much phosphorus the lake could absorb and still meet water quality standards. They then deducted a margin of safety, perhaps 5%. The remaining pollution load is divided between point sources, those with federally administered permits, and non-point sources, areas that generate phosphorus but do not receive permits. Currently Vermont discharges approximately 533 metric tons per year to Lake Champlain. According to EPA's models, in order to meet water quality standards that discharge needs to decrease to 343 metric tons per year, a 36% reduction. Since EPA only has permitting authority over the point sources, they need a reasonable assurance from Vermont that the state can achieve reductions in non-point sources.

To provide reasonable assurance, Vermont has prepared a suite of 17 activities to accelerate clean up efforts. Proposals include revising the Accepted Agricultural Practices, developing a small-farm self-certification program, creating new permit programs for state and municipal roads, establishing a new municipal stormwater management program, increasing training for local officials on stormwater management and planning, revising the Vermont stormwater manual to encourage low impact development, and regulating more activities in river floodplains.

The purpose of the public meetings was to address concerns about the new proposals, identify any gaps that need to be addressed, and build support for implementing the proposals.

A few questions came up repeatedly at the different meetings:

How will we pay for all of these programs?
Chuck Ross, Vermont Agriculture Secretary, identified three ultimate sources of funding: businesses and farm owners in the form of permit compliance and fees, taxpayers, and philanthropists. As to how much programs will cost he threw the question back to the crowd. Ultimately it will be up to the voters to determine how much they are willing to spend to address Lake Champlain’s problems, and to make their preferences clear to legislators and the governor. Be sure to let your representatives know that you value clean water and support public investments to protect and restore water quality.

What is New York’s role in reducing phosphorus pollution?
David Mears, Vermont Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner, explained that while New York was not required to revise their TMDL at this time, they were very interested in the proposals being developed by Vermont because they may affect New York in the future.

Why do different lake segments have different standards?
The water quality standard for the Main Lake is 10 µg/L (micrograms per liter) while the standard for Missisquoi Bay is 25 µg/L. Eric Smeltzer, a limnologist at VT DEC explained that varying water quality standards for different sections of the lake reflect inherent differences between lake segments. Shallow sections with larger watersheds have more phosphorus in them naturally and the variability in the standards is meant to reflect that natural variability.

What happens if Vermont fails to implement these programs?
Steven Perkins of EPA explained that they would set up a series of deadlines and activities that the state needs to take. If the state fails to meet those deadlines and requirements then sewage treatment plants would be required to further reduce their discharges. Sewage treatment plants are the only place EPA has permit authority, but they only contribute 3.1% of the total phosphorus load and reducing that further is very expensive. As a result, more reductions from sewage treatment plants across the board would not represent the best use of public resources, and therefore EPA and Vermont are committed to identifying other strategies to provide reasonable assurances that Vermont can meet its pollution reduction obligations.

How long will it take before we see changes in the lake?
Multiple participants in the meetings warned audience members that actual lake response will take a long time. The changes to the lake have happened over decades and we should expect the lake response to take at least as long. Phosphorus has accumulated in lake sediments and is released from them during the summer. It is also stored in streambeds and moving slowly toward the lake. Even though we may not achieve water quality goals in the near future, we still have an obligation to future generations to start moving more aggressively in the right direction.

Why aren’t septic systems include in the proposed activities?
Eric Smeltzer explained that septic systems are not seen as a significant source of phosphorus for Lake Champlain. VT DEC is concerned about failing septic systems because they present a public-health risk, but phosphorus tends to get bound by soils even around failing systems.

EPA has indicated that they believe the proposal Vermont has put forth provides reasonable assurance that water quality standards can be met for 10 of the lake’s 12 segments. The proposed package is not enough to meet standards in South Lake B (the most southern section of the lake) or Missisquoi Bay. Missisquoi Bay is the place where blue-green algae blooms are most acute, and where the greatest total reduction is needed. Missisquoi Bay would require a 66% reduction in loading, 80.4 metric tons, in order to meet standards; South Lake B would require a 45% reduction, 17.3 metric tons. It is not yet clear how EPA will proceed with these two lake segments.

LCC is preparing comments on the draft proposal. Currently, Vermont's  proposal doesn't offer enough specificity to provide reasonable assurance that water quality standards will be met. The proposal needs to include estimates of how much reduction is expected from each strategy in order to provide any assurances; the proposal should commit to sufficient resources to implement and enforce both new and existing permit programs; and they should identify bottlenecks in existing programs that prevent them from operating at their most efficient.