State draft plan addresses phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain

Burlington Bay on Lake Champlain in Burlington. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Burlington Bay on Lake Champlain in Burlington. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

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.

John Herrick

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  • Jim Barrett

    No funds allocated for cleanup so that means the taxpayers are about to get stiffed again and again. The Vermont taxpayer has shoveled millions into the lake clean up and the talk now is like nothing has improved and dig deeper into your pocket. The EPA has told the state we are violating pollution standards (laws) and to my knowledge the state hasn’t been fined. Cities dump sewage into the lake during heavy storms and never pay a penalty but let a private company do it and we know what happens. Sorrell is ready to pounce on anyone but government and fine them tens of thousands for big bad privateer companies errors but the huge government is generally allowed to do whatever without much of any question. Why is there no central sewages systems being built in towns, especially in which are heavily covered by flood plains. Talk and more money is all we get and the positive results look to be nothing.

  • Jonathan Armstrong

    Folks should learn the difference between Phosphorus and phosphorous; Phosphorus is the element (discussed in this article), while phosphorous means of, relating to, or containing Phosphorus.

  • This is the same old song that Agribusiness always likes to hear. More money from the people shoveled into the Agribusiness/Industrial Farmers pockets. It is to late to “restore” anything without “MANDATORY BUFFER ZONES” along all water ways in our State. The tax payers in Vt. have shoveled untold millions into these “projects” with little or no gain and now it’s time to look toward Agribusiness/Industrial Farms to make their sacrifice for the environment, but oh, how they will cry, “we can’t afford to give up land to buffer zones”! Meanwhile, back at the residential housing sector, we will be taxed to death…..AGAIN!

    I am a Native Vermonter and have watched this process unfold over the last 50 years with very little to no results. All the sewer plants all the storm drains, all the regulation on Phosphorous Products all the tax money taken from Home Owners and this is what we get for a score. We need MANDATORY BEFFER ZONES and we need these zones NOW!

    James Duglass had a chance to regulate these Industrial Farms when it was proposed during his administration but I am sure he was richly rewarded (as are all our reps) by Agribusiness for opening the door for these Industrialist to come into the State. It was a “Free for all” for Agribusiness!

    It’s time to vote for a clean Lake Champlain and let our Reps know we are done with their back room deals and secret hand shakes at the expense of property owners. MANDATORY BUFFER ZONES NOW!!!

  • Sherb Lang

    It is NOT the time to clean up Lake Champlain.
    It is time to start cleaning up ALL lakes and ponds in Vermont.
    Has anyone been to Big Salem and Little Salem Lakes in Derby? They both are “green” all summer long! What about the bays of Lake Memphremagog in Newport and Conventry? Why are they “green”. What about Island Pond in Brighton. The shallow depts are pure green!

    The point is this: any body of water that is surrounded by extensive farming operations, industrial operations, plus antique municipal and private sewerage systems, AND LOCAL TOWN GARBACE DUMPS dumping their “waste”, for decades, into the stream and rivers that feed into these bodies of waters is also probably one of the primary cause of phosphorus in all these bodies of water!
    It IS NOT a localized issue that only effects Lake Champlain. The phosphorus issue is a “statewide issue”.
    But for some unkown reason Lake Champlain seems to be the only body of water that is of any importance to the F&W Dept. & Agency of Natural Resoursees!

    Remember, all fishermen that buy a license to fish in Vermont, pay the same price for their license, and they may never fish in Lake Champlain. So how do those Vermont license buyers get their “money’s worth”?

  • Yes, as I mentioned above, we need State wide Buffer zones. If Agribusiness would have been properly regulated from the conception of bringing these industrial farms into our State, we would not be facing this insurmountable problem. Our Leaders in Montpelier are not doing their jobs. They are completely bought and payed for by BIG Agribusiness and, by doing so, have violated their oath of office – which is to protect the people of this State and that includes the environment we live in. These Industrial Farms diminish the quality of air, water and thereby our way of life.

    What I find insulting is to look at the Chamber of Commerce web site that claims,”The pristine Waters of Vermont”. Obviously they have no idea of what our waters looked like 50 years ago. They obviously don’t realize that our native Brook Trout are all but extinct. Our Brooks and Streams used to be teaming with native fish, now hard to find. The problem here is, the Agencies all have young blood fresh out of college who never saw what our once beautiful water ways looked like. They know not that the food chain has been broken. They don’t realize that the habitat, through unacceptable Agricultural Practices, has been wiped out and the rivers and streams filled with gravel and top soil. Not to mention the removal of trees along the banks that cooled the water. We need MANDATORY BUFFER ZONES and we need them NOW!

    • Sherb Lang

      You have made some valid points. However there are more firms/ business’ and organizations that are contribution to the issues, than just farmers.
      Here are a few examples: City and town municipal sewer systems that, for years” dumped directly into the rivers & atreams.
      Pulp mills that converted “soft woods” into paper. ( Did you ever pass thru Gorham or Berlin N.H…….those rivers and streams were “yellow from the processing chemicals.
      My point is this: for over a century, many, if not must of the various manufacturing operations dumped their “waste” directly into rivers, streams, and lakes that ofter fed into a bigger body of water.
      So, in my view, we shouldn’t place all the blame on the farming industry.

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