Energy & Environment

Clean water projects highlighted in national ‘green infrastructure’ report

A gravel wetland in St. Albans was designed to filter pollutants before water enters the nearby Stevens Brook, reduce erosion and create a natural appearance. Photo courtesy of the Vermont Agency of Transportation

Two clean water projects in Vermont are examples for the nation, according to a new report.

“A Path to Cleaner Water,” a report by the Environment America Research & Policy Center, gives examples of water infrastructure projects in 19 states that have diverted pollution from nearby water bodies. 

Laura Miller, a Colchester native, and John Rumpler wrote the report, which highlights two Vermont projects as part of the study and urges the federal government to invest more money in water infrastructure projects across the country.

The Vermont projects include a stormwater diversion project in St. Johnsbury and a wetland in St. Albans that filters out pollutants headed toward Lake Champlain.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the United States will need $271 billion for such projects in the next 20 years, but federal funding for water infrastructure has declined since the 1980s. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s wastewater infrastructure a D-plus in 2017

Back in 1977, the federal government paid 63% of the costs for water infrastructure, but that amount had plunged to 9% by 2014, according to the report. As a result, state and local governments must foot most of the bill for expensive infrastructure improvements. Advocates are concerned that water quality projects may fall to the bottom of the priority list as the pandemic strains municipal budgets.

“Just in the last few months, I've been hearing from folks who work at these utilities and within the state saying that, with Covid stretching budgets so thin, projects like these might not make the cut,” Miller said. “So every little bit of funding from the federal government really helps states protect their waterways.”

Particular problems are drainage systems that feed into the municipal sewer system, mixing water runoff with wastewater. Heavy rains and spring floods can overwhelm a municipal sewage-treatment plant and result in overflows of partially treated water into nearby rivers and lakes. 

Miller said she and Rumpler studied water quality data in 29 states, and examined whether the water quality at each location was safe enough for swimming. 

“We found that over half of the beaches that were tested were potentially unsafe at least one day a year,” she said. “And when we looked into the reasons for that, we came to the conclusion that these sanitary sewer overflows, combined sewer overflows and stormwater runoff were three of the top causes for unsafe waterways.”

Of the 860 U.S. communities served by combined systems, serving 40 million people, most are in the Northeast, the report says. In Vermont, 14 communities have combined drainage and sewer systems, and the cost of remedying that problem is enormous. 

In 2019, a grant from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a mix of both state and federal money, helped St. Johnsbury complete the first neighborhood-scale Green Stormwater Infrastructure project that mitigates the impacts of a combined drainage-sewer system. Engineers diverted the drainage flow away from the sewer system, installed bioretention swales in green spaces, and graded roads so that stormwater was directed toward the swales. 

The project, coordinated by Caledonia County Natural Resources Conservation District, was built along Oak Street, which runs along a section of the Passumpsic River that has been polluted by combined sewer overflows. The cost totaled $600,000. 

Miller said the Passumpsic flows into the Connecticut River, the longest river in New England. 

“It's part of a very important river system,” she said. “And what happens upriver is going to affect that well-known river downstream.”

Near St. Albans Bay, a part of Lake Champlain afflicted with blue-green algae blooms caused largely by agricultural runoff, the Vermont Agency of Transportation installed a gravel wetland near a park-and-ride to capture and treat stormwater. 

Catch basins capture water and send it through the wetland, where “microbe-rich gravel” filters out phosphorus, a nutrient that feeds algae and other harmful pollutants. Plants grow above the gravel, which helps the wetland store excess stormwater, then release it slowly into nearby Stevens Brook, preventing erosion and more pollution.

Gravel wetlands can remove 60% to 80% of phosphorus when they’re properly constructed, according to the state’s stormwater treatment standards.  

The Clean Water Initiative Program, which includes state and federal funds, spent $44,000 on the project.

Both projects need upkeep and maintenance, which require more money. But Miller said the solutions don’t always have to be expensive. 

“Green infrastructure is very cool, because by implementing these natural, nature-based solutions, it's cost-effective,” she said. “It's providing wildlife habitat, it's capturing stormwater and filtering it before it even hits these sewer systems. So there's really cost-effective natural ways to address this.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.


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