Solution is larger than Combination Pond
The recent controversy over Combination Pond is a small part of a much larger problem, a problem that will have costly implications for all Rutlanders if it is not addressed. Combination Pond and Piedmont Pond are on Moon Brook. About 1,800 acres within the city — about 40 percent of all Rutland’s land area — drain to Moon Brook or its tributaries. Since 1986 Moon Brook below Combination Pond dam has failed to meet Vermont water quality standards because there are not enough brook trout and the bugs they eat in the stream.
Since 2004 the Agency of Natural Resources has claimed that stormwater runoff from streets, roofs, parking lots and the like was the cause of Moon Brook’s impairment. The city disagreed, arguing that summer water temperatures downstream of the ponds are too high for brook trout to survive.
The disagreement remained unresolved when in late 2012 ANR formally required Rutland to prepare plans to install about $20 million in stormwater control systems. Rutland City appealed the requirement to the Vermont Environmental Court and has recently reached an agreement with the ANR to drop the appeal in return for ANR agreeing to reconsider their stormwater diagnosis.
Why should the average Rutlander be concerned about this? Look to Chittenden County. Five communities in Chittenden County, including Burlington and South Burlington, have been attempting to comply with ANR’s stormwater requirements for about 10 years. South Burlington has stepped up to the plate and implemented a municipal stormwater utility to assess fees and fund required programs and infrastructure.
If Rutland were to adopt the South Burlington approach, the cost would total about $2.4 million per year, increasing the taxes on a $200,000 home by about $460. And this would be the cost to every property in the city, not just those in the Moon Brook watershed. In addition, private property owners would be required to install upwards of $25 million in stormwater facilities out of their own pockets, and regulatory restrictions would make development or redevelopment nearly impossible in 40 percent of the city.
Unlike South Burlington where there is no disagreement about the cause of the problem, Rutland City is convinced that no amount of stormwater spending will put brook trout in Moon Brook if we do not first fix the temperature problem. Removing the dam, restoring the original stream and implementing a basic stormwater education and management program will cost us something, but it will be dramatically less expensive than a futile stormwater public works program. More to the point, it could actually fix Moon Brook.
The settlement agreement between the city and ANR recognizes this. It requires a good housekeeping program for stormwater costing about $100,000 a year, and requires the removal of Combination Pond dam. But the pond has cultural, aesthetic, recreational and wildlife values of its own, as pointed out by those seeking to preserve it. Nonetheless the clean water priority set by the ANR places the need for brook trout in Moon Brook above nearly all other considerations.
Ponds are treasured natural areas, but so are streams and wetlands and forests. If the requirement that Moon Brook be “fixed” means the pond must go, isn’t there something that could be created in its place that would offer similar benefits? A wildlife refuge, a passive recreation area and a wide range of possibilities could be totally compatible with a healthy Moon Brook and offer the neighborhood amenities comparable to those offered by the pond.
The Clean Water Act and Vermont’s administration of it have forced this situation upon us. We can debate whether ANR’s implementation of the law makes sense, but if the means actually to improve water quality are available to us, should we not take action? And if our failure to take action could result in crushing financial and regulatory burdens why would we delay?
Christopher Louras is mayor of Rutland. Jeffrey Wennberg is the Rutland public works commissioner.