Community conversation looks to involve more people in reversing water pollution

By Roberta Nubile

It’s happening more frequently: informational meetings about our water issues in Vermont to discuss local waterways and especially Lake Champlain with an eye toward finding ways citizens can help protect and preserve this critical resource.

The latest gathering last week was organized by the outreach committee of Trinity Episcopal Church in Shelburne; it attracted about 25 attendees from near and far.

“Water is a precious resource and I wanted to learn from experts,” said Scottie Emery-Ginn, who travelled from New York via ferry to attend.

At the outset, presenters explained that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has mandated Vermont reduce its total maximum daily load of pollutants into Lake Champlain. Regulations have already affected farmers, new construction and businesses, and will soon affect towns and taxpayers who must all share in the responsibility of protecting our precious resource. Conversations are under way in Shelburne now regarding how to manage stormwater, for example.

Of concern are contaminants such as chemicals from manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, e-coli, and chloride from road salt. But reduction of phosphorous is a top priority.

High levels of phosphorous, which can lead to toxic blue-green algae blooms in summertime, can render water undrinkable, unswimmable, and unsustainable to aquatic life. Some studies are linking close proximity to the blooms with neurodegenerative diseases, said panelist Krista Hoffsis, program coordinator at Lewis Creek Association, a Charlotte-based nonprofit conservation group and watchdog for area rivers and streams.

The excess of this nutrient is not new, said Craig Heindel, a consulting hydrologist and hydrogeologist. Heindel explained that soil erosion caused by massive clearing of land for agriculture hundreds of years ago led to large amounts of phosphorus flowing into our lakes.

Heindel also pointed out some positive factors influencing water resources such as relatively evenly spaced rainfall and attributes of northern New England soil, particularly its unique biodiverse clay plain, which acts as a protective cover for bedrock aquifers.

But that very impermeability that protects groundwater also contributes to swift and unfiltered stormwater runoff. And that runoff is the primary source of water pollution in lakes and streams.

One program of the Lewis Creek Association is called Ahead of the Storm and it focuses on practical ways to slow down stormwater so it can sink into the soil.

Along those lines, Rose Paul, director of science and freshwater programs at The Nature Conservancy Vermont, offered that when considering lake cleanup, instead of costly overhauls of wastewater treatment plants, the better investment may be to focus on nature-based solutions. It may be better to look at the relationship between forests and wetlands and their sponge-like ability to absorb phosphorus before it reaches freshwater, Paul said.

Hoffsis said reversing the trends will take involvement by many people at many levels. “We need to get away from the blame game,” he said. “People know there is something going on in the lake but there is a disconnect. It’s easy to think it is someone else’s problem, the farmer down road, the developer. We must look at it from a neighborhood or community scale, and find solutions that are cost-effective and will make a difference.”

Haley Pero works in environmental outreach in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office. She travels around Vermont speaking with people and gathering information to help secure federal funding for forests, and agricultural practices that will benefit water resources.

She noted challenges in Vermont that are getting more public attention such as the need for Vermont to become more resilient to extreme weather and the need protect drinking water supplies. She used Tropical Storm Irene and PFOA contamination in Southern Vermont wells as examples.

Don Rendell, vice chair of the Shelburne Natural Resources and Conservation Committee, said that public education is key: “More people need to become more aware of problems as it will impact us all. Many hear larger tax bills vs. what is the other side of the issue.”

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