Drinking Water – Too Precious to Pollute

Aug 5, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The tragedy this past weekend that left more than 500,000 Ohio and Michigan residents without safe drinking water shows the real dangers of polluted runoff. Toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie left drinking water with dangerous levels of microcystin. More than 100 people visited area hospitals, with upset stomachs, dizziness, and vomiting after drinking contaminated water.

The dangers of toxic algae blooms are not limited to Lake Erie. Excess nutrients – especially phosphorus – from agricultural runoff pollute Lake Champlain.

Nutrients meant to feed farm crops instead runoff into Lake Champlain where they cause excessive growth of algae and other weeds. Toxic algae blooms in Lake Champlain have caused beach closings and are dangerous to people and animals. In 2012, Missisquoi Bay suffered a large fish kill as a result of particularly bad phosphorous pollution.

Blue-Green Bloom

Blue-Green Algae in Lake Champlain in 2011.

Keeping our waterways clean and healthy requires reducing runoff from farms. Earlier this summer, CLF petitioned the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to require stronger controls on agricultural runoff to protect Lake Champlain. As the situation in Ohio shows, the safety of the drinking water of thousands of Vermonters is at stake. Reducing farm pollution is manageable and necessary. In some circumstances, funding is available to assist farmers with pollution controls. Requiring improved management practices, such as fencing to keep cows and other livestock out of streams prevents direct pollution impacts. Creating buffers along streams can minimize runoff near fields. Reducing ditching and allowing water to flow more slowly cuts back on erosion after rainstorms. Careful enforcement can reduce overuse of fertilizers that feed algae instead of plants.

With nearly a quarter-million households relying on Lake Champlain for drinking water, we cannot afford to keep adding dangerous levels of phosphorus to the Lake. The experience in Lake Erie is a cautionary tale that we should heed in Vermont before it’s too late.

CLF Petition Seeks Win-Win Solutions for Agricultural Water Pollution

May 23, 2014 by  | Bio |  4 Comment »

Yesterday, CLF filed a first-of-its-kind state law petition with the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture. The petition calls for Vermont officials to require dairy and livestock producers in the Missisquoi Bay region of Lake Champlain to implement “Best Management Practices” proven to reduce erosion and runoff of manure into area tributary waterways and the Lake itself. Agriculture is a huge part of the rural economy and cultural heritage in the region that drains to Missisquoi Bay. Sadly, pollution from agriculture is also the biggest source of phosphorous plaguing the Bay.


The beautiful Missisquoi River feeds into Lake Champlain’s Missisquoi Bay. CLF’s petition aims to protect the river and the bay from pollution that comes from poorly managed agricultural operations. Photo credit: Marcio Cabral de Moura via photopin cc

Lake Champlain’s Missisquoi Bay is a stunningly beautiful, ecologically rich waterscape that is home to a National Wildlife Refuge designated as a “Wetland of International Importance.” It is also ground zero for Lake Champlain’s phosphorous pollution problems. Many days the water there is safe and clean, but too often those who seek to use the Bay confront toxic blue-green algae blooms or mass fish kills. That’s why it is time for a more comprehensive, mandatory pollution control approach that requires agricultural producers to do their fair share of pollution prevention.

CLF’s petition rests on government scientific studies that identify specific agricultural operations as “critical source areas” of phosphorous discharge, i.e., those that send the most phosphorous pollution to the Lake because of the soils and slopes on which the farming is being done or the methods of farming being employed. Drawing off those scientific studies, CLF’s petition also identifies the “Best Management Practices” that should be required to reduce pollution and the loss of soils to erosion – a win-win approach considering that healthy soils are one of the most valuable assets on a farm. These include:

Vegetative Filter Strips “of grasses or other close-growing vegetation planted around fields and along drainage ways, streams and other bodies of water designed to reduce sediment, organic material, nutrients and chemicals carried in runoff by slowing the speed of water runoff, allowing contaminants to settle out.” Learn more >>

Cover Crops, like winter rye, that are planted in fields after the primary crop–most often corn–has been harvested. They “cover” the soil and hold it in place with their roots to “prevent erosion, improve soil’s physical and biological properties, supply nutrients, suppress weeds, improve the availability of soil water, and break pest cycles. Cover crops trap excess nutrients, keeping them from leaching into groundwater or running off into surface water, and release it later to feed growing crops.” Learn more >>

Grassed waterways, natural or constructed channels established in suitable vegetation for safe water disposal. Waterways are constructed to convey runoff from terraces, diversions, or other concentrated flow areas where erosion control is needed. Grassed waterways also improve or help protect water quality by filtering sediment and nutrients.” Learn more >>

Many agricultural producers in the areas of Vermont that send pollution to the Bay have voluntarily stepped up to the plate and are making the best management practices work for water quality and also for the bottom line of their business. But unless every “critical source area” producer is held to the same standard, Vermont is not going to make the pollution control progress it needs to restore and protect Missisquoi Bay. It’s neither fair nor effective for some agricultural producers to do all the heavy lifting for clean water while their neighboring producers sit on the sidelines and do business as usual.

Vermont officials, working with EPA, have recognized the need to do more to reduce pollution flowing to Missisquoi Bay from all sources, including agricultural producers in critical source areas. Granting CLF’s petition would be an important step in the right direction.


Apr 9, 2014 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Riding the single chair ski lift to 3637′ summit of General Stark’s Mountain at Mad River Glen is among my life’s great pleasures. The lift pulls you ever upward through the forest at treetop height. You sit comfortably in solitude soaking it all in. The experience imparts a sense of serenity that competes with the giddy anticipation of the long, fast descent that awaits. The best moment comes when your chair attains the elevation that affords you a sweeping panoramic view over the spine of the Green Mountains to the shimmering shores of Lake Champlain that lie beyond, stretching northward in the distance to the Canadian border. It is a compelling visual reminder that “The Lake Starts Here.”


Watershed Perspective: Lake Champlain seen in the background from the summit of General Stark’s Mountain

When the snow melts it flows downhill into one of the many Vermont rivers that feed into Lake Champlain. These rivers and the mountains, forests, farms, and developed areas that drain into them are the Lake’s watershed. Credit for the clever hashtag #LakeStartsHere goes to our angler amigos at Lake Champlain International who are working in concert with the Vermont Ski Areas Association to raise “watershed” awareness among Vermonters and our visitors through a contest featuring photos like the one at right. The idea is to help people make connections between the snow they ski on in the winter and the water they drink, swim, fish, and boat on in the summer; as the seasons turn one becomes the other.

Watershed awareness is sorely needed at this critical moment in the history of Lake Champlain cleanup. While the Lake is a drinking water source for nearly 200,000 people and a recreation destination for thousands more, it is too often out of sight out of mind for many Vermonters who do not live in communities that touch the Lake’s shores. Yet the polluted runoff from farms, logging sites, roads, parking lots, industrial sites, downtowns, strip malls, and housing developments along with the polluted wastewater from those upstream communities all contribute to the clean water crisis (e.g., toxic blue-green algae blooms, noxious weed growth, fish kills) facing one of the nation’s largest freshwater lakes.

The Clean Water Act and Vermont’s own state water quality laws require everyone to do their part for cleanup. The laws are based on the wise premise, beautifully articulated by poet Wendell Berry, that we must do unto our downstream neighbors as we would have our upstream neighbors do unto us. At some point we all live downstream and, more importantly, we all benefit from clean water.

Fortunately, many of the pollution control measures Vermonters must undertake to clean up Lake Champlain will benefit local waterways and community bottom lines too.

  • When upstream farmers prevent manure runoff and soil erosion they not only reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing downstream to Lake Champlain, they also keep water free of harmful bacteria that can make local swimming holes unsafe and reduce sediment that clogs fish habitat.
  • When municipalities upgrade culverts and line ditches along their gravel roads they reduce erosion of phosphorus-laden sediments and also reduce the amount of money spent on road maintenance over the long term.
  • When real estate developers install “green stormwater infrastructure” at shopping plazas and housing developments, they reduce overall flows of phosphorus runoff flowing downstream to the Lake and at the same time reduce flash flooding risks in local rivers and streams caused by the artificial concentration of runoff from an overpaved landscape.
  • When ski areas maintain or restore robust buffers on high mountain streams, they minimize the local erosion hazards that result from clearing
    trails and reduce pollutants that flow downstream.

In the wake of CLF’s precedent-setting lawsuit and settlement with EPA seeking a truly effective and comprehensive cleanup framework for Lake Champlain, the administration of Governor Peter Shumlin and EPA officials are wrestling with the final details of a new plan. CLF is playing an active watchdog role to ensure that Governor Shumlin, the state legislature, and EPA officials live up to their responsibilities under our clean water laws by holding all contributing pollution sources accountable to do their part. If and when they do, we can launch a new watershed-wide photo contest: #ACleanLakeStartsHere.

More (Or Less) Road Salt

Jan 25, 2011 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

Less than a week after I posted my blog post about the environmental and health problems associated with road salt, the Boston Globe published an article about de-icing alternatives some Massachusetts communities are turning to. Boston has received almost 50 inches of snow this winter compared to a total of 17 inches on average around this time. We can only assume that it means we’re using record amounts of salt to combat all this snow. While it is difficult to say if the increased snowfall we’re seeing is directly related to climate change, increased temperatures tend to increase evaporation thus resulting in increased precipitation.  (In the Northeast, there has been a 5 to 10% increase in annual average precipitation since 1900.) More generally speaking, scientists are increasingly concerned about the link between global warming and anomalous winter weather (such as the bizarre snowstorms seen recently in the South). As such, it is encouraging to hear that towns are looking to more environmentally friendly alternatives to deal with our new weather conditions as the planet continues to warm.

Besides rock salt (sodium chloride), calcium chloride and magnesium chloride can be used in colder temperatures but unfortunately, they are significantly more expensive than the traditional rock salt. Instead a growing number of Massachusetts communities are returning to an age-old solution: brine. The mixture is a combination of rock salt and water. Applying brine before snow falls and ice forms on the roadway (known as “anti-icing”) can prevent snow and ice from sticking to roads. Unlike plain old rock salt, this stuff doesn’t bounce or get blown off the roads like we’ve all seen. As such it dramatically reduces the amount of salt used and the time it takes to remove snow and ice from the roads in turn saving towns money. A study done in Oregon and Washington state showed that anti-icing can decrease costs by more than 50% compared to conventional de-icing. And it reduces the amount of salt that gets into our drinking water and the negative impacts on the environment.

This yet again reinforces the idea that solutions that are good for the environment are often also good for people and the economy.

Hold The Salt- On The Road, That Is!

Jan 12, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


It’s difficult to imagine a day like today in Boston without the aid of salt to make our roads safe to use. For those of us in the snowier parts of the country, road salt is a necessary and accepted part of our winter. It’s cheap, effective and it allows commuters, motorists and emergency vehicles to safely reach their destinations in harsh conditions. According to the Salt Institute, Americans used 22 million tons of road salt in 2008. In a different study by the National Research Council, Massachusetts tops the list of of states with the highest road salt-use at, 19.94 tons per lane-mile each year, surpassing even New York, with 16.6 tons per lane-mile. Under MassDOT salt policy, salt or sodium chloride is applied at 240 pounds per lane-mile. In other words, trucks in Massachusetts are dumping more than a ton of salt every 10 lane-miles in a single application! Salt does not evaporate or otherwise get removed, so one has to ask: what is the fate of all this salt that is dumped on our roads?

Unfortunately, most of it is washed off of roadways by rain runoff and snow melt and enters our rivers and streams or percolates through the soil into our drinking water supplies. That’s the situation that Cambridge, MA has been combating for years. This densely-populated city gets its water from two reservoirs, both located next to Route 128, making it particularly susceptible to salt contamination. Another town suffering from the same issue is Boxford, MA. The town launched a suit against the state highway department, MassHighway, to close its salt storage shed, contending that it was responsible for contaminating at least 30 local wells. Aside from the ecological damage of excess salt, there are also health and financial burdens associated with high salt levels in public and private water supplies. High salt levels can result in skin and eye irritation and pose a danger for individuals with sodium-restricted diets, according to the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission.

MassHighway is already under court order to manage stormwater runoff after CLF’s successful suit in 2008. Hopefully this effort will divert some of the salt from our waters and, in turn, lead to better health for both the environment and the MA residents who live in it.