The state is undertaking a complex Lake Champlain cleanup that will likely alter the state’s farmland, forests and streams over the next decade.
The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets released a draft plan for restoring the Lake Champlain Basin this month. The consortium must comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s request to clean up the lake or face funding holds and strict regulations, according to David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Vermont’s share of phosphorus pollution is 65 percent relative to its neighbors New York and Quebec. The EPA is requiring that Vermont reduce is phosphorus load by 36 percent – from 533 metric tons to 343 metric tons of loading per year.
The plan, which will be vetted during several public meetings this winter, includes tightening the state’s agriculture programs, stormwater management practices, ensuring river channel stability, updating forest management practices and watershed protection plans. These are considered “nonpoint sources,” unlike the closely regulated facility discharges around the lake, that dump phosphorous into the lake.
“We are in a moment in time where we have to fix this problem because the lake is such an important asset,” Mears said Friday. “We also have to do it because the law says we have to do it.”
Since 2011, the EPA has warned that Vermont’s contribution to the lake’s phosphorus concentration does not comply with the Clean Water Act. Subsequently, in an Oct. 22 letter addressed to the commissioner, the EPA said the facilities around the lake would have to be significantly regulated “to the limit of available technology” if the state doesn’t find an alternative solution.
The EPA will work with the department to establish a plan to reduce phosphorous levels in the lake. After the EPA issues a final plan by next summer, Mears said further details, such as funding, will be worked out.
Eric Smeltzer, environmental scientist with the department, said the state’s good track record of addressing contamination in the lake is not enough.
“It’s alarming that we are not meeting the standards and the trends are going upward,” he said Thursday morning. “Fundamentally, we have not been doing enough.”
Smeltzer said there will be a lag time of about 20 years before the lake responds to the restoration. This is because over time phosphorus has built up in the sediment at the bottom of the lake and the state’s farmland is saturated with the pollutant.
“We have to expect a very long time for recovery,” Smeltzer said.
The state has led efforts to limit the amount of pollution in the lake over the past decade, he said.
“But the lake hasn’t responded yet,” Smeltzer said. “We are dealing with a historic legacy of pollution.”
Even with the “best management practices,” both the Missisquoi Bay near St. Albans and another basin west of Rutland will not be able to meet the reduction targets set by the EPA, department officials said.
Aside from phosphorus buildup, there are several other factors the state will need to consider in the restoration planning process, Smeltzer said. This includes climate change and the associated extreme weather – such as Tropical Storm Irene – that load the lake with runoff, and agricultural practices that have saturated the state’s soil with phosphorus.
Asked whether the restoration proposal will be enough, Smeltzer replied: “We are going to find out.”
The implementation is expected to begin as soon a next summer when the EPA issues a final Lake Champlain Phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Load, which sets a target for Vermont’s phosphorous load to the lake. While results will take time, the EPA will monitor the state’s implementation of its plan to gauge its compliance, department officials said.
“What I’m thinking about is getting to next summer when the EPA issues a final TMDL and we know by that point what the package is going to be and then we’ll turn in earnest to a more specific discussion about what we need to put into place in terms of additional authorities, putting the regulatory packets together – you know regulation and so forth – as well as trying to calculate what are the ways we are going to pay for this,” Mears said during a public meeting on Tuesday.
Mears said there is no clear source of funding currently. He said the state will apply for several federal grants – including the EPA’s Clean Water Act Revolving Fund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grants for farmers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers grants – as well as state and local funding in the form of property taxes, for example.