Development pressures highlighted in impaired waterways report

Big Spruce Brook, a small, coldwater stream draining the area near Stowe Mountain Resort, has been restored in its upper section, but the lower section is polluted. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Big Spruce Brook, a small, coldwater stream draining the area near Stowe Mountain Resort, has been restored in its upper section, but the lower section is polluted. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

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.

John Herrick


  1. Art Fern :

    “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.”……And the “water park” was approved anyway????? Wait a minute, I have to go to the bathroom, I’ll be right back.

  2. Carl Marcinkowski :

    I appears from the statements from our government officials that we are going to have cesspools for our domestic water use, recreation and natural habitat, but that’s ok. We’ll ask all Vermonters to step up and do what’s right, that will work. Bull Roar!

  3. Glenda Bissex :

    “As of 2012. . . 62 percent of [Vermont] lakes supported aquatic life and swimming.”

    That is astonishing! Look around you–one in three lakes (actually somewhat less than that) is not fit for swimming. How do we know which ones? It’s swim at your own risk here in beautiful, supposedly clean Vermont.

    To those who are opposed to government regulations: who else is going to monitor pollution and have the power to do something about it? To those who support government regulations: why haven’t they worked here?

  4. Bruce Post :

    It is difficult to know where to begin. At a minimum, this situation is emblematic of Vermont’s Januslike posture toward our natural environment: with one face, we ballyhoo our green credentials; and with the other face, we accept, rationalize, abet and even promote continued destruction of our mountain ecology.

    Back in the 1960s, four visionary individuals – UVM’s Hub Vogelmann, the Green Mountain Club’s Shirley Strong, the Green Mountain Audubon Society’s Bob Spear and the Boy Scouts’ Roland Wilbur – formed the Green Mountain Wildlands Profile Committee to sound the alarm over the degradation of our high elevations. And, they made a series of recommendations to head off further destruction of the Green Mountains. Here are just a couple of snapshots from their 1966 report:

    — “The Green Mountains are an important resource to Vermont for they provide scenic, recreational, economic and conservational benefits of real magnitude. As pressures mount for development in the State, it is evident that steps must be taken immediately so that the very characteristics of the mountains which make them an important asset are not destroyed. Therefore we urge that the State take action now and adopt a land-use policy for its mountain lands”; and

    — “All future encroachments which would destroy the mountain wilderness and disturb the ecological balances with these areas should be prohibited. Specifically prohibited would be the erection of buildings, towers, roads and any practices which would destroy the wilderness character of the mountains. Additional ski developments should definitely be discouraged.”

    That summer, Weyerhaeuser blew off thirty feet of Jay Peak’s summit to build the tram haus. And, evidently, the beat goes on and on and on.

    Fast foward 50+ years. In a chapter on Act 250 and the Killington resort, the authors of “Mountain Resorts: Ecology and the Law” wrote: “We conclude this chapter with a perhaps wistful suggestion as to how the Act 250 process can be improved so that it better protects ecosystems.” They add, “We admit that, at first glance, it seems unlikely that the political pressure for such a change in Act 250 will materialize soon.” Wistful. Unlikely. ‘Ya think?

    In 1966, Vogelmann, Strong, Spear and Wilbur urged: “Now is the time to plan and work for the preservation of such a Strip. Tomorrow will be too late.”

    Many tomorrows have come and gone since, and they were correct: It is too late.

  5. Vanessa Mills :

    Let’s not choose to listen to the likes of Blittersdorf and other industrial-scale wind developers. They’d have us developing as much of the ridgelines as THEY see fit — and as much as corporate-influenced politicians see fit.

    The problems with this — to name but a few—- are that developing upland watersheds wreaks havoc with the natural, intact watershedding processes that nature has taken care of since time began.

    Healthy watersheds and intact river corridors and floodpaths are critical to water quality and the lands below, and to the woodland, lowland, and wetland pieces of the watershed processes.

    We cannot continue to ignore these facts, and develop the mountains as industrial-scale utility developers would have us do, and expect no health/environmental/fiscal/soci-economic repercussions! The watersheds (INTACT!) will aide in Vermont’s economic and environmental, etc resiliency in the future, both near and projected, to come. Intact watersheds, protected water quality, and agricultural/woodlands will aide in our resiliency and should be valued! Increased weather events, unpredictable storming, and changes in climate REQUIRES that we value and protect what aides in Vermont’s resliency. We will value it, or ignore these facts to our own peril.
    Or we will allow ourselves and our politicans to be led by the nose by corporate ridgeline developers, to our own peril. If Blittersdorf is less about his bottom line (yeah,right!) and as “green” as they tout, and Green Mountain Power/Gaz Metro as well, then they will heed these imperatives.

    Locally-owned and applied energy and microgrid technology would seem the way to think? Keeping development smart and to-scale and creating solutions in harmony with the work/value of healthy lands and being mindful as stewards of Vermont lands will foster resilience, in the face of uncertain (climate) repercussions. Such smart ideas are separate from corporate scaled developers’ modes, though.

    Another piece that should come into play is the small-scale, sustainable farming — looking at ‘feeding the farmland’ with healthy cropping methodolgy. Labor-intensive, small-scale, biodiverse priciples are smart (but again, these solutions do not fit with and work against the problems created by larger scale, factory-farm methodology. Not a bad thing, when thinking about building a resilient future in Vermont. It is said and studied that vast factory farms and open soil and monoculture farming methodology actually works against the healthy, natural work that plants and soil does, in intact, self-righting, carbon-balancing!

    In a future that is not far off, but here now, we have issues to wrap our heads around. We have choices on how to act. We could start getting it right. OR we could stay on the corporate/industrial-scaled modality that got us into this fix. We must face this sooner or later. But we will face it. We have many, MANY people to feed. We have finite water to protect (that is to say: what is here is the same water here on earth since ancient times). We have finite resources to guard and to steward healthily and in harmony with nature’s self-righting work. Do we continue to exhaust and deplete, as if resources are infinite?? Do we? Will we? Chances are good that we will, if we let corporate-scaled agriculture and industrial-scaled energy production continue to rule the day. VERMONT COULD (?!) get smarter than that. Will we?? Will we, in time to at least, delay the struggles to feed/water/etc the ever-growing populace? We should work to create mindful, necessary,nature-harmonious, resource-stewarded shifts NOW.

    In-fighting and petty name-calling will not get us there. Community-destructive tactics and threats (from Blittersdorf) about using “his trunkmonkeys” to scare those opposed to industrial-scaled ridgeline development will not get us there. But we will need to get there.

  6. Two myths: 1. Septic tanks treat sewage. They only solubilize the sewage so it can get into groundwater. 2. Sewage is treated under the Clean WTer Act. Sadly when EPA implemented the CWA it set sewage treatment requirements, but, because it used an essential water pollution test (BOD) incorrect (by using its 5-day value, in stead of its full 30-day value) EPA not only ignored 60% of the oxygen exerting pollution, but all the nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste, while this also is a fertilizer for algae.
    Not surprising we experience exessive algae growth in all open eaters, receiving “treated” sewage, resulting in dead zones. Not having to admit that such a basic mistake was made, authorities responsible (not only EPA) now blame the runoffs from farms and cities, while nobody is held accountable that municipal sewage is still only partly treated.

  7. William Floyd :

    But never forget that the real problem that remains unaddressed by the pinheads and regulatory fascists (see above) is that geese and duck are DEFECATING in our mountains streams. Wow! Really John?



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