Vermont, EPA agree on new phosphorus limits

The Environmental Protection Agency and the state have agreed on new limits to the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Champlain.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released a new final draft plan to reduce the amount of phosphorus that drains into Lake Champlain by more than 30 percent in the next decade.

The plan seeks to curb phosphorus pollution by controlling runoff into the lake and its tributaries.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and EPA Region 1 Administrator Curt Spalding announced the plan [August 14] at a joint news conference with EPA officials at the lake’s North Beach in Burlington.

“We stand here on Vermont’s most beautiful natural resource to celebrate that Vermont and the EPA have come to a meeting of the minds about the best way to clean up this lake,” Shumlin said.

The state has $10 million to launch the new project and anticipates several million dollars annually from federal, state and private sources to implement the plan, said Vermont Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz.

The state also has established a Clean Water Board to manage clean water funds for the project, Markowitz said.

The EPA will accept public comment on the plan until Sept. 15.

Three public hearings on the plan are scheduled for later this month:

  • Aug. 26, 6-8 p.m., St. Albans Historical Society, 9 Church St.
  • Aug. 27, 10 a.m.-noon, Doubletree Hotel, 1117 Williston Road, South Burlington.
  • Aug. 27, 2-4 p.m., Rutland Free Library, 10 Court St.

You can download a copy of the plan from the EPA’s website:


Work gets under way on new Community Sailing Center

This is great news for Burlington and Vermont:

The nonprofit Community Sailing Center in Burlington could break ground on a new building as early as September.

“The expectation is that the site work, closing of the area and doing some preliminary foundation work will be complete … before they close up shop for the winter,” sailing center Executive Director Mark Naud said.

The building is part of Waterfront Access North, a major public-private redevelopment project along the north end of Burlington’s lakeshore. The $9.1 million project also includes a new skate park and infrastructure improvements along Lake and Depot streets.

Crews broke ground on Waterfront Access North last August. Naud said workers have cleared the lot on which the new sailing building will sit. He hopes crews can complete the foundation of the building this fall.

“I don’t think that’s an unreasonable goal for us, at all,” Naud said.

The center projects the 21,000-square-foot building will cost $2.5 million to build. Burlington voters in March 2014 approved $500,000 in tax increment financing for the project.

Naud said the entire sailing center capital campaign, which includes dock repairs, new boats and other site improvements totals $5.75 million. The new building will include indoor and outdoor watercraft storage, a classroom, locker rooms and offices for the center’s half-dozen employees.

The Community Sailing Center not only gets lots of folks out on the water, it also uses sailing as the delivery vehicle for a great elementary school science program, which the CSC calls Floating Classrooms.

Senate bill would ban microbeads nationwide

More help is on the way in the effort to remove microbeads from the nation’s waters.

Following the lead of the Vermont Legislature, which voted earlier this year to ban the tiny plastic beads — used in all kinds of personal care products, from toothpaste to facial washes — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has introduced legislation to ban cosmetics containing microbeads nationwide.

“Every morning when we brush our teeth and when we wash our faces at night, we don’t consider these acts to be harmful in any way,” said Gillibrand. “But for many of us, myself included, the toothpaste, soaps and facial washes we’ve had in our homes are leaching into our water supply and damaging the local environment.”

New York and 13 other states are now considering legislation similar to that passed by Vermont in January. In one New York study, microbeads were discovered in 74 percent of water samples taken from 34 municipal and private treatment plants across the state.

Mike Winslow, staff scientist of the Lake Champlain Committee, says plastics have no place in our waterways. “There are numerous studies documenting the physical and toxicological effects of plastics in the environment,” said Winslow. “Some microbeads are the size of fish eggs and look like food to larger fish and other aquatic organisms, an all-too-literal junk food.”

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy has said he supports Gillibrand’s push to ban microbeads, and hopes that manufacturers will not wait till the federal legislation passes to reconsider including microbeads in their products.


Bringing some perspective to talk about septic system spills

So it turns out there are sewage overflows, and there are sewage overflows. There has been a lot of talk lately in the media about challenged municipal septic systems, and how much effluent they are spilling into local waterways, and eventually the lake.

A lot of the talk can be traced to sometimes hyperbolic press releases issued pretty much weekly this (very wet) spring and early summer by Lake Champlain International. The organization, which organizes fishing derbies, has become one of the loudest advocates for cleaning up Vermont’s waters, though it doesn’t really do nuance.

The Burlington Free Press’s Joel Banner Baird did folks a favor by examining these claims, and what he found was that, while no sewage spill is a good thing, the specifics of each spill matter.

Mike Winslow, a scientist with nonprofit Lake Champlain Committee, notes that most fecal pathogens do not accumulate in river and lake water — unlike other pollutants such as heavy metals and nutrient phosphorus. Nor, when our micro-organisms hit a body of water, do they tend to migrate far.

It’s a mistake to equate the potency of a sewage spill only by its gallon value, Winslow said.

Typically, the volume of sewage in a municipal system remains fairly constant, he said; “the excess that’s causing the flows is the addition of relatively clean rain or groundwater.”

The significance of sewage spills might be sometimes exaggerated, Winslow said, but complacence can be just as harmful, particularly when it comes to identifying and tracking the passage of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals through our bodies and into bodies of water.

“There is no way to talk about sewage going into the river in a good way,” he concluded.

The problems come from so-called combined systems, in which both storm water and sewage are processed in the same plant.

There are lots of things to worry about when it comes to the health of the lake, and outdated combined sewage systems are certainly among them. But the significance of these spills pales when compared to the effects of phosphorus pollution, from agricultural run-off and stormwater.

We should certainly fix these out-of-date septic systems, and in a perfect world we’d tackle all of the contributors to lake pollution. Right now, the focus needs to be on keeping phosphorus out of streams, rivers and the lake.

A beach-closing because of a short-term E. coli contamination is one thing; phosphorus pollution that turns an entire section of the lake into a potentially toxic soup of blue-green algae for most of the summer season is another thing altogether.

State of the Lake 2015 buries the lede

The Lake Champlain Basin Program came out with its latest “State of the Lake” report this week. This is a great document with tons of useful information on the health of the lake and its watershed. Unfortunately, the headline in some news outlets was that 98 percent of the lake’s waters are of excellent or very good quality. This came from the opening paragraph of the report’s summary at the LCPB website:

Although the water quality trends in Lake Champlain are cause for concern, it is important to know that more than 85% of Lake Champlain’s water is consistently of excellent quality and another 13% of the water is usually in quite good condition. In the remaining 2% of the Lake, conditions are seasonally alarming. The most compromised parts of the Lake are St. Albans and Missisquoi Bays, where excess nutrients and other factors trigger blue-green algae blooms in summer, and the South Lake, where the water tends to be quite muddy.

While this may be objectively true — you don’t need to spend much time on the main lake to know that the water looks quite clean — it doesn’t really help folks understand the challenges facing the lake. More to the point is the news, in the second paragraph of the summary, that phosphorus levels in 10 of the 13 areas of the lake are above targets adopted by Vermont, New York and Quebec. And that levels are rising in many of the segments, particularly in the north and south.

Missing the most important bit of news — called “burying the lede” in the news biz, the “lede” being the first paragraph — happens all the time, but more often when newsmakers themselves choose to put less important stuff at the top of their summaries. Editing matters. Given the importance of reducing phosphorus levels to the health of the lake, and all of the attention, time and money being devoted to this issue, you would expect that it would be right up front. So, great report, but its impact was not what it could have been. Seems like a missed opportunity.

Water quality bill heads to governor’s desk

The Vermont Legislature’s major water quality bill has been approved by the Senate and the House and is headed for the desk of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who made cleaning up Vermont’s lakes, rivers and streams one of his top legislative priorities for this session.

landmark bill aimed at curbing the flow of pollution into Vermont’s waterways cleared the Senate on Tuesday, setting a road map for water quality initiatives yet to come.

The Senate voted 27-2 to pass a $7.5 million water quality bill, H.35, that is funded in part by a 0.2 percent surcharge on the state’s property transfer tax. The bill also includes fees on pollution permits, medium and large farm registrations, and the sale of non-agricultural fertilizer and pesticides.

The House voted Wednesday to concur with the bill, sending it to the governor’s desk. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he supports it.

The bill spends $2.6 million next year to support eight new positions at the Agency of Agriculture and 13 at the Department of Environmental Conservation. The agencies will use the money for education and outreach as well as for enforcement of water quality regulations.

One reason behind the action this session on water quality: The state faces an impatient U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has threatened to impose clean-up solutions for Vermont’s waters if Vermont fails to do. The bill on its way to the governor’s desk is a start.

The bill creates a Clean Water Fund to keep track of money for water quality. It also requires an audit of how money from the fund is spent and whether water quality projects have been effective at reducing pollution. A board composed of administration appointees would make budget recommendations on how to spend the money.

The state now awaits a decision from the Environmental Protection Agency on whether it will approve a plan filed by the Shumlin administration last year to improve water quality in Lake Champlain. The EPA will consider whether the state has the authority and the money to implement the plan when making the decision.

An EPA official said Tuesday the agency plans to release a draft Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, for public comment by the middle of July. EPA models indicate the state’s current plan will not achieve the require phosphorus reductions.

Senate gives preliminary approval to water quality bill

The Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval on Monday to this year’s major water quality bill, H. 35. Most encouraging for those who want to see Vermont’s streams, rivers and lakes cleaned up, the Senate bill, approved on a voice vote, is funded through a surcharge on the state’s property transfer tax, the same source that provides most of the money in the House-passed version of the bill.

The money would be raised through a 0.2 percent surcharge on the property transfer tax, the same funding mechanism that was approved by the House. The property transfer tax is paid by real estate purchasers at closing.

The Senate’s version sunsets the tax in 2018 with the expectation that it would be replaced with a more equitable tax policy in which polluters pay more to clean up the state’s waterways.

The bill, H.35, aims to slow pollution into the state’s waterways, including Lake Champlain. It creates new permits to reduce runoff from developed areas and sets a timeline for the creation of pollution control measures on farms, among other measures.

Funding for the water quality bill has been the main stumbling block throughout this year’s legislative session. That both houses of the Legislature have approved versions of the bill with the same funding mechanism is good news. It’s also encouraging that there is a recognition of the need for a more broad-based solution to the funding question in the future.

The per parcel fee would have set the stage for a more complicated tax policy in the future in which polluters pay more. Both the Senate and the House version included a study on how to collect a tiered tax based on the amount of pollution a property generates.

David Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said the state should be looking at ways to tax based on pollution.

“It should be fair and tied to the source of the pollution. The so-called ‘polluter pays’ concept is an important one,” Mears said.

Despite the arguments over fairness, even supporters of the per parcel fee agreed to the property transfer tax because they wanted to see the bill move forward.

“It’s a balance that’s workable, and we know we have more work to do in the years to come,” said Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, whose committee supported a per parcel fee. “I think it’s important to be able to move the bill forward.”

So, more progress.

Feeding Frenzy

Hundreds of seagulls descended recently on the last bit of ice on Hawkins Bay, along the southeast shore and at the entrance to Little Otter Creek. The reason could be found in and around the ice: thousands of dead or dying alewives. The small invasive fish often have die-offs in the spring, as they move from colder, deeper water to warmer, shallower parts of the lake.


Alewives littered the ice and floated in the frigid water of the bay just off shore.

Senate committee approves water quality bill

More progress for water quality in the Vermont Legislature: On Wednesday, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee approved the Senate version of the bill, S.49, on a 4-1 vote.

The bill moves on now to the Senate Finance Committee. As approved by Natural Resources, the bill envisions raising more than $10 million dollar to pay for clean-up efforts, nearly $2 million more than in H.35, which passed the full House earlier this month.

The only vote against the water quality bill came from Sen. Mark McDonald, a Democrat from Orange, who felt the bill should have included mandatory water-friendly management practices for foresters. Still, he called the bill “a good step forward.”