Over the years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has observed an increase of algae growth in Lake Champlain and has determined that an excess of phosphorus in nearby waterways is the cause. Agricultural practices and stream instability were found to be the main contributors of phosphorus pollution, followed by forests, developed land and wastewater treatment facilities.
Vermont’s Clean Water Act, or Act 64, was created last year in an effort to better control phosphorus content and to improve Vermont’s waterways more generally. The state has set up a fund for costs associated with this work – currently set at $5.3 million for the 2016 budget, with funds coming from property transfer taxes for the next three years. After this time, the state will seek funds from elsewhere.
The law requires that more rigorous standards be fulfilled in three areas: roadways, agricultural practices and “impervious surfaces” of three acres or more.
On Tuesday, April 26, at the Waterbury municipal building, Daniel Currier of the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission (CVRPC) presented information about the law to community members and town employees.
He said that individuals and towns should become informed about the law, as they will need to apply for certain permits beginning in 2017. Many standards that will be required for permits are not yet determined, Currier said. The same applies to some permitting fees.
Stormwater permits will need to be obtained by those who own impervious (sealed) surfaces of three acres of more – including parking lots and rooftops, with an early 2018 deadline. Those who received permits before 2002 will need to reapply. Currier said that the state estimates about 700 properties will require a permit.
Towns will need to obtain municipal roads general permits (MRGP) from the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), as roadways leach sediment, heavy metals, hydrocarbon and salts, in addition to phosphorus, into waterways. Currier said that 70 percent of the 18,000 miles of Vermont roads are owned by towns.
Road standards will be developed by next winter, with draft permits issued by winter of 2017. The state will then inventory roadways for problem areas. Deadlines for towns to remedy these issues will vary. Towns may need to construct ditches, culverts or catch basins and Currier said that one goal of the law is for towns to do much of the work themselves.
A representative from the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) or the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), or even the towns themselves, will verify that projects are completed. “We don’t know the full framework of the compliance yet,” Currier said.
Informational documents from state agencies say that these road projects will save money for taxpayers, but towns must pay both a $400 permit application fee and a $2,000 annual operating fee. Currier said that grants will be available through the DEC, VTrans and other organizations.
Duxbury has already received a grant for roadwork, but the funds are being held by the CVRPC until the state finalizes standards for roadwork.
Currier said that fees for permit and operating costs may be applied toward ANR staffing or may be cycled back to towns through grants, but is uncertain about the details of funding.
The law establishes a set of required agricultural practices (RAPs), such as tasks related to soil erosion, manure stacking, nutrient application, buffer zones, livestock, cover crops and drainage systems.
While many rules already exist for larger farms, these will become stricter and the Agency of Agriculture (AOA) is now requiring that small farms be included.
A small farm is defined by 10 or more acres in combination with certain numbers of animals (50 or more cows, for example) or farms with commodity crops not intended for human consumption. Small farms must self-certify annually and will be inspected within 10 years, according to information from the AOA.
Manure certification will be required for “a person who is engaged in the business of applying manure or other nutrients to land, except commercial fertilizer,” according to the law. Currier said that the AOA will finalize the RAPs by this July.
In order to judge the law’s efficacy, financial, environmental and social outcomes will be measured yearly, Currier said. The ANR will analyze data, write reports and pass them along to the EPA. If little progress with phosphorus content is found after five years, the requirements may become stricter.
Community members asked Currier, who does work for the state, why the state is not targeting “the most egregious areas [of phosphorus production], instead of trying to tackle everything?” Agricultural practices were found to leach the most phosphorus (40 percent of total offenders), while wastewater treatment facilities were found to have minimal impact (3 percent) yet are still held equally accountable.
Another community member responded that different waterways are associated with different offenders in terms of phosphorus production and that it would be too difficult for the state to determine which waterways are affected by which sources of phosphorus most.
Someone else wondered why the law does not address the distribution of pesticides – such as those sprayed by railroads in Waterbury. Currier said that the state’s primary concern is phosphorus – not all water pollutants.