Enforcement of state stormwater regulations is likely to some Vermont towns and cities significant money as they take steps to halt the pollution of the state’s waterways.
It has been a long time in coming, but at this point more aggressive control of stormwater pollution is inevitable. One visible reason is the continuing pollution afflicting Lake Champlain into which most of the waters on the western side of the state flow. Algae blooms, fed by the influx of phosphorous, have continued to choke the lake, damaging its value as a natural resource and a tourist attraction.
Gov. James Douglas took steps to clean up Lake Champlain, devoting millions of dollars mainly to help farmers implement measures to avert runoff from their fields. Nonpoint pollution, as it is called, occurs when fertilizer or manure is washed into streams from the fields. Farmers who plant buffers along stream banks and take other steps to avoid damaging runoff are an important component of any program to avert pollution in the Champlain watershed and elsewhere.
But Douglas demurred from strong action against other sources of stormwater pollution, such as municipal sewage treatment plants that are inadequate to the task. These would be costly to cities and towns, and Douglas wanted to address farm runoff first.
Now the Shumlin administration has issued a stormwater permit requiring 13 entities to upgrade their programs for handling stormwater. These include Rutland City and Town, St. Albans City and Town, Burlington, South Burlington Colchester, Winooski, Williston, Essex, Milton, Shelburne, the University of Vermont, Burlington International Airport and the state Agency of Transportation.
Stormwater is the water that runs off roofs, parking lots, roads and other surfaces into the state’s waterways. Municipal sewage treatment plants may handle some of it, but much of it flows directly into streams and lakes. On its way, it sweeps a toxic brew of gasoline, oil and other pollutants into our waters.
The measures required by the Department of Environmental Conservation could cost as much as $100 million. Some of the measures used to contain and handle stormwater include ponds for impoundment of water as well as upgrades to treatment plants. A public works official in St. Albans Town said improvements there would cost millions. Evan Pilachowski, public works commissioner in Rutland City, said upgrades in Rutland would be a “challenge.”
It is a challenge worth taking on. The state has accepted a level of environmental responsibility that it cannot shirk. We profess to value the environment, but if that is true, we cannot throw up our hands helplessly when confronted with the reality of the pollution we are creating.
The first wave of environmental cleanup in the country attacked the obvious sources of pollution: the factories and sewers that were spewing filth into our rivers and lakes. These measures were costly, but few would dispute that they were worth the cost.
Still, our industrialized society had other sources of polluting chemicals and waste that were less easily identifiable. These included our roadways and farm fields, our parking lots and rooftops. The pollution coming from these sources is real even if less concentrated. By the time it collects in Lake Champlain, it is concentrated enough that it is despoiling one of our great natural resources.
The Legislature will be debating ways to help fund the cleanup. It has spent millions on Douglas’s initial efforts to clean up the lake. Providing loans or other sources of money will not be throwing good money after bad; it will be throwing good money after good. The job is not done. The state is not New Jersey, which means that steps to contain pollution will not prove to be as onerous as they would be if the problem is ignored and the state becomes more like New Jersey.
Nothing against New Jersey — but Vermont has a different identity. It is not part of the nation’s industrial heartland. It is a rural state with urban centers that must remain vital without doing serious harm to the state’s cherished natural resources.