Are New Pollution Limits Enough To Save Lake Champlain?

Nov 2, 2015

With the passing of Vermont’s Clean Water Act last year, the state has made a serious commitment to tackle the pollution problems plaguing Lake Champlain.

But less well known are recent major updates to the pollution data that’s the guiding force dictating just how much runoff the state needs to cut back.    

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state used entirely new — and significantly different — data to calculate how much runoff the lake can safely handle. That’s after a lawsuit challenged the pollution limits and the accuracy of the data established in the state’s 2002 plan. 

Interactive Database: Vermont's Lake Champlain Cleanup Plan, Explained

These Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL) numbers dictate how much phosphorus can safely be allowed in different sections of the lake.

There were many issues with the data used in the 2002 plan. For one, the old 2002 numbers for how much phosphorus is currently flowing into the lake were based on a single year of data. But the new plan used the average of 10 years of data and calculated the real amount of runoff was actually 46 percent higher. This also means the 2015 pollution limits, or TMDL, requires a much greater reduction of runoff.

Credit Hilary Niles, Taylor Dobbs / Niles Media, VPR

See more of VPR's breakdown of the new pollution data in our interactive: Vermont's Lake Champlain Cleanup Plan, Explained.

At a recent Vermont Journal of Environmental Law Symposium at Vermont Law School several of the state’s leading experts came together to discuss what the new pollution limits mean for Vermont — and how to best act on them.

“One of the benefits of this new calculation is it that lets us really hone in on where we have to act,” says Deborah Markowitz, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

"Particularly in the northern part of the lake and the southern part of the lake, we're going to be focusing a lot on agriculture." - Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deborah Markowitz

“We know that agriculture is a big contributor," she says. "Particularly in the northern part of the lake and the southern part of the lake, we're going to be focusing a lot on agriculture.”

For the state to really meet the new lower pollution limits will require some serious changes across many sectors.

“It’s the challenge of modern environmental policy that so much of the kinds of pollution, and in this case the phosphorus runoff that we're experiencing, is from so many diffuse sources,” says David Mears, director of the law school’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic and former commissioner of Vermont's Department of Environmental Conservation. 

“So it requires changes of behavior. There is no way that any department — state, local or federal — is going to be able to come in and police every activity on the landscape.”

Mears says this means changing the way that we design and build our roads, our houses, our parking lots and rooftops.  

"It's the challenge of modern environmental policy that so much of the kinds of pollution ... is from so many diffuse sources." - David Mears, Vermont Law School Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic director

“And none of this is rocket science,” says Mears. “Basically, the kinds of measures that we need to engage in are things that are fairly obvious: We need to make sure that more of the rainfall and snow melt seeps into the ground, where it can flow into the ground and filter out the pollutants, as opposed to running down the street into storm drains and hitting our waterways.”

In Vermont, agriculture contributes at least 40 percent of the phosphorus runoff that finds its way into Lake Champlain.

Getting serious about farm runoff 

Some have critiqued the Vermont Clean Water Act because it gives the Department of Agriculture, rather than the Agency of Natural Resources, enforcement power over the new required agricultural rules.

Markowitz says it’s too soon to say if the agriculture department is the right enforcer for the new mandatory rules, but there are advantages.

“There is an efficiency in having the folks who are visiting the farms anyway, who are trusted by the farmers, be the ones to identify where there's recalcitrance so that they can bring actual enforcement action," she says.

"Vermont farmers get it. They really have an interest in clean water. They don't want the nutrients running off the soil because it's this phosphorus is what helped their plants grow and be healthy." - Deb Markowitz

Plus, Markowitz says, “Vermont farmers get it. They really have an interest in clean water. And in fact, when they're doing things right, they're keeping nutrients in the soil. They don't want the nutrients running off the soil because it's this phosphorus is what helped their plants grow and be healthy.”

Markowitz says the key will be to reach out to small farmers who just aren’t aware that these rules apply to them, and aren't aware of how they can improve their practices. (Read about how the new rules will affect small farmers and what the new small farm inspections might look like.)

Persistent problems

One of the biggest problem areas in the lake is the Missisquoi Bay, where the majority of the pollution comes from farms.

“One of the things that we acknowledge is that there may well be some farms in this sub-watershed that really are just in the wrong place,” says Markowitz. “All of the practices in the world aren't going to solve the problem just because of the way the water runs on the land in that particular area.”

She says the department has been in active conversations with the conservation community about whether or not those farms will get bought out. Perhaps some of those farms aren’t suited to have animals in any significant numbers, she says.

"One of the things that we acknowledge is that there may well be some farms in the [Missisquoi Bay] watershed that really are just in the wrong place." - Deb Markowitz

“This is also an example of an area of the lake that's just going to take time to heal,” says Markowitz.

“You know, it's a shallow part of the lake, it’s had this historic agriculture use now for well over a 100 years; it really is loaded down with phosphorus," she says. "It's not going to change overnight even if we stop the tap [of phosphorus] entirely.”

“It's going to take many, many years, if not decades, for that part of the lake to heal itself," she says.

A can-do attitude

Despite the recognition of the severity of the problem, Markowitz says Vermonters are dedicated to solving the pollution problem in Lake Champlain.

Markowitz says that at the law school symposium, “there was a coming together, not just of the scientists and the technical approach … but also Vermonters really came together to say, ‘We're going to solve this problem. We love our lake. We cannot let our jewel, Lake Champlain, get this polluted. It's necessary for the future prosperity of the state of Vermont.’"

Markowitz says she left feeling really optimistic.  

For his part, Mears says the event showed that Vermont is really leading the way in tackling this problem.

“I do attribute it … to the Vermont spirit,” says Mears. “It’s people working together across communities, across sectors: businesses, farmers, developers and environmental community folks figuring out solutions.”

Update 1:45 p.m. 11/14/2017  VPR republished this data presentation here to preserve the information when a third-party content publisher ceases operations. The underlying data for the visualizations is available here.