Lake Champlain TMDL

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Lake Champlain TMDL

Posted by Karen Horn on 1 September 2016

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We have a Herculean task ahead. Cleaning the Augean stables in a day was nothing compared to cleaning Lake Champlain over the next twenty years. Yet funding this complex set of mandates has not been dealt with in the legislature and is not being addressed during this election season.

The Lake Champlain Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) finally landed on June 17. This is the dictum from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that establishes phosphorus loading goals for Lake Champlain and allocates responsibility for reducing discharges among all those economic sectors that, as a result of their activities on the land, contribute phosphorus to the lake. The Vermont Lake Champlain Phosphorus TMDL Phase 1 Implementation Plan will establish the programs currently being designed to achieve the TMDL phosphorus reduction goals. Comments on that plan are due by September 7.

We say “finally” because this has been a very long time coming. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation began to develop Lake Champlain Phosphorus TMDLs in the late 1990s. The draft TMDL was circulated for public comment and submitted to EPA for approval on September 25, 2002. EPA Region 1 approved the Vermont TMDL six weeks later. (Incidentally, EPA Region 2 approved New York’s TMDL on September 30, 2002.) On October 28, 2008, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) filed suit in federal district court against EPA seeking to set aside the Vermont TMDL and to establish a new one. In 2010, EPA and CLF signed a settlement agreement. On January 24, 2011, EPA Region 1 withdrew its approval of the 2002 Lake Champlain TMDL, throwing Vermont’s efforts to address phosphorus pollution in the lake into chaos. The New York portion of the TMDL was never challenged and has remained in effect all these years.

Since 2011, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and EPA Region 1 have been working on a new TMDL for Lake Champlain that incorporates new wasteload allocations and “margins of safety” for phosphorus discharges into the lake. And from 2008, when CLF filed its lawsuit, until this TMDL was issued, there has been little certainty about what EPA would require to implement the TMDL or where Vermonters should focus their phosphorus reduction investments. We lost a lot of valuable time.

Now – presumably – the state, local governments, farms, and every other business on the landscape in the Vermont portion of the Lake Champlain Basin can get moving on actually implementing projects that will meet the new TMDL requirements, reduce the discharge of phosphorus to the lake, and focus cleanup efforts where EPA requires them. That is important for both the health of the lake itself and for the significant portion of the economy that depends on a healthy and clear lake. (See related article here.

The Lake Champlain Basin includes portions of the Green Mountains, the Adirondack Mountains, and the Pike River floodplain in the province of Quebec. Sixty-four percent of the land in the basin is forested, 16 percent is agricultural, 10.3 percent is open water, 5.6 percent is developed, and 3.8 percent is wetlands. Given the distribution of land uses, the proportion of contributors to phosphorus loads and resultantallotment of responsibility for reduced discharges is surprising.

Phosphorus sources to the lake include agriculture runoff, streambank erosion, developed land (roads, parking lots, lawns, athletic fields, buildings), wastewater treatment facilities, forest harvesting, and even historically deposited phosphorus that has collected in bottom sediments in portions of the lake. An analysis of total loads estimated that 922 million tons of phosphorus were discharged to the lake from New York (213 million tons), Quebec (77 million tons), and Vermont (631 million tons) each year between 2001 and 2010. In Vermont, wastewater treatment facility contributions are estimated to be 25 million tons per year (3.5 percent of the total 922 million tons), and non-wastewater treatment facility contributions are 606 million tons per year (60 percent of the total).

Those non-wastewater facility contributions include developed lands (114 mt/year), forest lands, operations and roads (100.7 mt/year), streambank erosion (130 mt/year), and agriculture (262 mt/year). The distribution varies within segments of the lake according to the adjacent land uses and the contours of the lake itself.

Now that the TMDL has apportioned responsibility amongst contributing sectors for cleaning up the lake and a timeline for making improvements, ANR is updating its Phase I Implementation Plan. Because EPA’s fallback position is that wastewater treatment facilities will need to further reduce their phosphorus discharges if non-wastewater facility contributions are not reduced sufficiently, and because wastewater treatment facility discharges are measurable, the Phase 1 Plan focuses a disproportional amount of attention on wastewater treatment facilities. Yet reducing phosphorus discharges from wastewater treatment facilities will be enormously expensive for very little relative return in most portions of the lake, given that these facilities contribute 25 million tons of phosphorus per year. A far greater return will be realized from concentrating cleanup efforts on non-point discharges. Nonetheless, all that costs money, and lots of it.

Vermont legislators and the governor have yet to provide a detailed response to the fiscal challenge. Vermont’s State Treasurer is tasked with finding the money to pay the hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements that will in the end – hopefully – provide the means for all implicated sectors to deliver Vermonters a clean lake. Her report and recommendations are due to the legislature in only four months. What is the untapped resource in Vermont? Where will we find the money? What are our obligations if the money is not found? What is EPA’s responsibility to help finance the work that it is requiring? Even Hercules had help cleaning out the Augean stables.