Lake Champlain has been the focus of Vermont’s push to improve the state’s water quality, but farming practices and development pressures have damaged dozens of lakes and streams, according to state reports.
Much of the water in Lake Champlain flows from high-elevation streams that have for years been impacted by ski resort development – golf courses, luxury condominiums and hotels, and other forms of clearing and paving – sending swells of stormwater into narrow upstream tributaries.
The state in March ordered Jay Peak Resort to expand its water quality remediation plan to improve newly discovered harm to rivers flowing from the four-season ski resort in the Northeast Kingdom.
For more than a decade, development, snowmelt and other causes of sediment loading have damaged aquatic life in streams flowing from the mountain.
And despite the implementation of new stormwater programs at the resort, improvement of water quality appears stagnant, according to the latest biannual survey of the state’s impaired waters released Tuesday.
But Jay Peak is not alone. Streams near Sugarbush, Stratton and Stowe Mountain Resort have since recovered from similar development after years of implementing cleanup plans.
According to the Agency of Natural Resources, impaired waters are those that fail to meet minimum state standards for aquatic life, pollution limits, recreational safety, and aesthetics, among other conditions.
Much of this pollution comes from phosphorus and nitrogen loading from farms, sediment and stream bank erosion from developed areas, wastewater treatment plant overflows, toxic chemical contamination like from plastics and PVC piping, and bacterial contamination from geese and gulls defecating into the water.
The number of impaired waters in the state is nearly the same this year as it was in 2012. But state officials said as the monitoring techniques and data collection improves, the number is likely to increase.
Deborah Markowitz is secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, which is responsible for enforcing the state’s water quality standards. She said while nature can cause these impairments, so does human activity.
“We know that when we develop land it has an impact on our waters,” she said. “We need Vermonters to step up to the plate and make sure they are following those rules.”
The South Mountain Branch and the Jay Branch, both of which drain areas of the Jay Peak Resort, do not support sufficient aquatic life currently. The reason, the state says, is years of land development.
The state identified the problem in the Jay Branch in 2004 after Jay Peak failed to comply with construction and erosion control state permits. The resort has since implemented a plan, which was approved by ANR, to improve the stream.
When the Jay Branch stream finally met the state’s standards in 2007 or 2008, the first phase of “five years of intense development” started, and the resort has since failed to meet the state’s water quality standards, said Walter Elander, director of mountain planning and development at Jay Peak Resort.
The resort has put in place new stormwater infrastructure to capture runoff from its developed areas. In areas of new development, the resort ensures that construction complies with stormwater permits and includes necessary stormwater infrastructure, Elander said.
Prior to 2013, not a single impervious surface on the Stateside section of the resort was suited to treat stormwater, Elander said. But now nearly all of these areas have been retrofitted to treat stormwater, he said.
This includes drainages ditches, settling ponds, new gutters, wetlands and other tools to collect and filter storm water.
“It’s not like flicking a light switch. It takes a little while for streams to recover,” he said. “Last year was kind of a turnaround year.”
The state requires those responsible for polluting waters to come up with a remediation plan. In some situations, the state requires a more intensive Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan, similar to what the state is proposing for Lake Champlain.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council, an environmental advocacy group, wants Jay Peak to implement a TMDL because its state-approved Water Quality Remediation Plans have continually failed to achieve the minimum state water quality standards.
Kim Greenwood, a water program director and staff scientist for the VNRC, said these plans have for a decade failed to improved the streams. She said the agency has not done enough to enforce statewide water standards in this area.
“That’s generally not reflective of moving in the right direction,” she said. “We seem to be moving in a direction where we have more and more reasons to worry every year.”
When the state identifies these distressed bodies of water, it is required to enforce their cleanup under the Clean Water Act. The state is currently reviewing Jay Peak Resort’s most recent remediation plan for approval.
Markowitz said the agency is collecting more data to monitor the state’s water health. She said watershed groups and basin planners use this data as part of their tactical basin planning processes.
There were several bodies of water restored through the state’s water quality monitoring program this year, including streams flowing from developed areas and farms.
Markowitz said water quality is important for the state’s recreation, tourism and business.
“We recognize that in Vermont that our prosperity and our health is really tied to the health of our natural environment,” she said.
As of 2012, 89 percent of the state’s streams and rivers and 62 percent of lakes supported aquatic life and swimming.