Fixing Vermont's Roads: Water Pollution Hidden In Plain Sight

Sep 2, 2015

One of the challenges to stemming the flow of pollution into Lake Champlain is that so much of runoff comes from disparate sources across the vast watershed. And one source of water pollution is hidden-in-plain-sight: roads.

Nearly one-fifth of the phosphorous flowing into Lake Champlain comes from urban areas, and roads contribute about half of that, with the remainder coming from rooftops, parking lots and lawns.

Reducing runoff from Vermont’s 14,000 miles of paved and gravel municipal roads is a monumental task.

But the new Vermont Clean Water law requires that municipalities across the state come up with a plan to retrofit the biggest water pollution offenders. 

Still, it’s not soon enough for Jeff Lefebvre. For 65 years, Lefebvre has lived in a house overlooking Malletts Bay. 

And in the last five years he started noticing changes in the bay: coffee-colored nutrient-laden silt flowing in from Crooked Creek.

So, armed with Google maps satellite view and a persistent attitude, he started investigating.

A concerned citizens treks upstream

About a mile from the bay, Lefebvre parks along a steep gravel road, whose edge abruptly slopes down into a tiny stream. He makes his way down to the stream bank below and points to the plumes of silt.

“And you can see it is muddy at the bottom, you can see a small land collapse right over here, where there’s no vegetation at all. It’s just plain mud,” says Lefebvre.

“When I got to base of this, which was supposed to be a swamp, and there used to be turtles and fish down there, I was actually walking on top of everything — it’s just silt,” he says. “And I was just surprised, disappointed.”

Lefebvre has followed Crooked Creek upstream from where it releases into Malletts Bay, chasing even tiny tributaries to see where pollution is coming from.

He describes some of the most burdened waterways as having the consistency of “peanut butter, that’s exactly what it is, but you put it in water and it just dissolves immediately.”

After painstaking research, he documented the erosion and runoff he found with multiple pictures and a detailed map — then emailed his report to both town and state officials. After his email was passed around a few times, he finally heard back.

If somebody emails me with a complaint, I look into it,” says Karen Bates, a watershed coordinator with the Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Because there’s so much ground. I grew up in the area … but still it’s not everywhere that I’ve walked, and we don’t have data that tells me what’s going on … so we’re very dependent and appreciative of citizen interest.”

Bates says she got permission from landowners, and walked with Lefebvre to check out his areas of concern. Some sediment washing into streams and stormwater grates may seem like small potatoes. But the silt and pollution is finding its way into Malletts Bay.

Bates says Lefebvre was right about the problem. “I could identify it easily as a significant source,” she says.

Bates says she’s working with the state Transportation Agency to address the problem’s Lefebvre has shown her. 

A hilly state crisscrossed with tiny waterways

The Crooked Creek erosion is just one citizen’s observation that’s slowly working its way up the bureaucratic ladder toward a solution.

But soon all municipalities across the state are going to have to examine their roadways and fix problems areas as part of Vermont’s Clean Water Act.

The law will require all municipalities to get a new permit that requires that towns make changes to existing roads that aren’t up to code. 

“The first cut in identifying high-priority roads is seeing if that road segment is hydrologically connected: Does the runoff from that road wind up going into some surface water?” says Jim Ryan, the coordinator for the new Municipal Roads Program with the Department of Environmental Conservation, which was created as part of the new law.

“There are lots of cases where we have road erosion problems, but that segment of road is not hydrologically connected, and those are a lower priority.”

Even before the state drafts new road rules and enforcement mechanisms, Ryan’s been working with the town of Groton to run something of a pilot project for the permit process. 

Fixing roads saves money in the long run

On a recent sunny day, Ryan and the head of road construction Groton Brent Smith drove out to see a steeply eroded bank that’s on the town’s list of problems to fix.

“This is one of our high priority sites that Brent and I have identified,” Ryan. “It’s a steep slope, it’s a gravel road on top, and some pavement that’s in rough shape.”

Ryan points to the road’s shoulder where the pavement has crumbled, and an obvious deluge of water has washed silt down the steep hill, and into Ricker Pond.  

Brent Smith, left, and Jim Ryan are working together to identify the priority road erosion problems in the town, and develop a plan to fix them that may serve as a prototype for the new required general permit.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

Smith points out how the deterioration of the road has effectively turned it into a gully stream:

“We have some ditches, but the water can’t get to it,” says Smith. “The crown on the road is critical to shed that water.”

By "crown," Smith means shaping the road such that the middle is a bit higher, and each side slopes down, so any water runs off the road into ditches lining its edges.

“We’re going to be putting in in stone-lined ditches and crowning the road, so the water gets off the road as soon as possible.”

“The idea is to get the water off the road as soon as you can,” says Ryan.

“This is perfect example. Because of the steep slope, [water] is heading right down this piece of blacktop and tearing up the blacktop and wreaking havoc downhill, and onto state highway and into Ricker Pond.”

Roadwork that withstood Tropical Storm Irene

Smith says Groton has identified nine road segments as priority projects; in total it’s projected to cost about $500,000. But, he says, “it’s gonna save us money. It’ll keep, hold our costs down. Eventually.”

Smith knows firsthand how building better roadside ditches and reshaping road crowns saves money.

Driving around he pointed out a steep gravel road where 13 years ago he’d spent a week putting in a stone-lined ditch. He says it held up through Tropical Storm Irene, and it’s still functioning today. Whereas standard roadside ditches only take a few moments to dig, they often wash out in a storm.

Smith has been an active community leader in Groton and leading the road crew for nearly 30 years. He cares about protecting the state’s waterways.

“We understand the implications coming down the road with the general permit, and we want to try to be a step ahead and be ready to go on that,” he says.

Setting a high bar

The timing isn’t set yet, but Ryan says high priority areas identified in a town’s permit will have to be addressed in the first years after the permit is in place. 

“What we know, for sure, is for the first time, anywhere really in the country, we're talking about expanding the scope of the Clean Water Act’s regulation of state highways from a very small nucleus of watersheds in Chittenden County that are currently covered, to the whole state of Vermont,” says Chris Kilian, the Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Kilian points out that it’s not just roads that are will be regulated. Other impervious surfaces such as rooftops and parking lots will be forced to retrofit to stop polluted water runoff.

This state office parking lot in Montpelier has been retrofitted so polluted runoff is filtered by vegetation before entering the drains, which flow directly into the Winooski River.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

Parking lots over three acres will be required to build in little garden patches around the storm drains, so water first gets filtered through soil and vegetation before entering a drain which goes directly into the river.

“So we can go to places like the retrofit on State Street here,” Kilian says, “and it's functional, it's much more beautiful, it reduces heat island effect, it protects the river.”

“And we know it can be done," he adds. "It’s not like we’re talking about things that need to be invented.”

Still, even knowing the right answers doesn’t make tackling Vermont’s 14,000-odd miles of roadways — and clusters of rooftops and parking lots — easy.

But for residents like Jeff Lefebvre, restoring the state’s waterways means keeping intact a part of Vermont’s legacy. 

“We used to fish this brook when we were kids,” he says. “It’d be smelt, perch, rock bass, and it was so much fun.”

Nowadays? “Nothing. It’s just like mud.”

Now it’s just a question of applying Lefebvre’s tenacity to all the priority roads and surfaces in watersheds across the state.

And as the rules and enforcement mechanisms are written over the next year, all 225 municipalities will be facing those changes.   

Follow VPR News' reporting on water quality in Vermont in our ongoing series, Downstream.