Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a new clean water bill into law on Tuesday. In the past, Vermont has focused on cleaning up Lake Champlain, but this legislation targets lakes, rivers and streams throughout the state, including the Connecticut River. And the impact of the law may be felt well beyond the state's borders.
You know that expression, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas"? Well, what happens on roads and farm fields in Vermont doesn’t always stay put. Storm water pushes nutrients such as as phosphorus and nitrogen into the Connecticut River, where they’re carried hundreds of miles downstream.
A lot of it ends up in the western Long Island Sound, according to Roger Reynolds, legal director for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment's Save the Sound program.
"That’s where the traditional dead zone is, a nitrogen-induced dead zone, an area where fish cannot live,” Reynolds says, adding that the sound is in crisis because of too much nitrogen.
"Just these past couple of weeks we’ve had instances [where] over 100 turtles have died because of a poison algae whose growth is promoted by nitrogen,” he says. “And we’ve had tens of thousands of menhaden die off in Peconic Bay because of a dead-zone, because of a hypoxic, low oxygen zone. They got caught in that zone and they died. And this is in the supposedly healthier part of Long Island Sound."
The majority of the nitrogen in the sound comes from New York and Connecticut’s septic systems and wastewater treatment plants. When nitrogen gets into salt water, like the sound, it acts like fertilizer. So plants, like algae, grow easily. But when algae dies, the bacteria that decomposes the plants consumes the oxygen.
Tim Clear, an environmental scientist with Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation, says algae can also grow well in fresh water when there’s too much phosphorus.
“That can be an aesthetic problem. It can also be a problem for that wild, aquatic life in those rivers and streams,” Clear says. “The oxygen that aquatic life needs to survive can be in peril.”
David Deen, a Vermont legislator and key sponsor of the clean water bill, says in the Connecticut River algae can grow in slow-moving stretches, often behind dams.
"What you get in those areas is excessive plant growth. And in terms of being able to boat or canoe in those areas or swim in those areas, it’s problematic,” Deen says.
The new clean water law creates a fund that will help pay for projects to prevent runoff of these nutrients from farms, developments and roads. The law also creates a total of 20 new positions in Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and in the Department of Environmental Conservation. Those staffers will work with farmers, municipal road builders and developers to stop erosion and nutrients from being washed away.
"[They’ll be] going on site working with people, to make sure they understand what techniques they should be doing to protect the waters of the state,” says Rep. Deen.
And it could also protect water elsewhere. Seven percent of the nitrogen in Long Island Sound comes from Vermont.
“If you have lower percentage contribution, you should be taking that amount of responsibility," says Roger Reynolds of the Save the Sound group. "And that seems exactly what Vermont is doing, so this is going to benefit Vermont as well. It helps them and it helps the entire Long Island Sound watershed of which they are a part."
Vermont’s clean water law is in sync with the work of environmental advocates in Connecticut and New York who have just launched a campaign to convince the EPA to put Long Island Sound on what they call a strict nitrogen diet by reducing the amount of nitrogen that’s allowed to be discharged into the estuary.