CLF Works for Clean Water in a Changing Climate

Anthony Iarrapino

Lake-Champlain-TMDL

A deluge of rain in spring 2011 caused flooding upstream of Lake Champlain. Extreme weather and damaging floods are not the only downside of Vermont’s changing climate. Mud-brown flood waters flowing to Lake Champlain also increase the loading of nutrient pollution that can cause toxic blue-green algae blooms and noxious weed growth.

The damaging floods of spring 2011 followed by Tropical Storm Irene in late summer awakened many Vermonters to the connection between climate change and extreme precipitation. But well before the “watershed moment” that was 2011, CLF’s Vermont Advocacy Center was pushing policymakers to connect the dots between our clean water challenges and the changing climate. Thanks in part to CLF’s efforts, Vermont is now poised to play a leadership role in the national climate change conversation around strategies to secure the natural resource we literally cannot live without: clean water.

CLF has worked for years to ensure that enforceable measures are put in place to clean up Lake Champlain, which has been heavily impaired by nutrient pollution. This pollution causes toxic blue-green algae blooms and noxious weed growth that make the water unsafe or unpleasant for swimming, fishing, and boating, and has led to massive fish die-offs in some parts of the lake.

In 2002, EPA approved a framework created by Vermont officials for cleaning up nutrient pollution in the lake, but it failed to take into account the growing scientific consensus that our climate is changing. In 2008, CLF sued EPA, under the Clean Water Act, to reopen this framework and revise it to include consideration of climate change. Specifically, CLF cited government studies such as the 2008 EPA National Water Program strategy document titled “Response to Climate Change.” It concluded that the climate chaos we are causing with our greenhouse gas pollution will “alter the hydrological cycle, especially characteristics of precipitation (amount, frequency, intensity, duration, type) and extremes.” The report also made a range of predictions that ring true in Vermont’s recent experience of the changing climate:

• “[w]ater-borne diseases and degraded water quality are very likely to increase with more heavy precipitation”;

• potential increases in heavy precipitation, with expanding impervious surfaces, could increase urban flood risks and create additional design challenges and costs for stormwater management”;

• flooding can affect water quality, as large volumes of water can transport contaminants into waterbodies and also overload storm and wastewater systems.

CLF and EPA ultimately settled the case, with EPA subsequently agreeing to redo the Lake Champlain cleanup framework to account for the ways in which Vermont will have to adapt our pollution-control efforts to a world in which heavy precipitation and flooding are increasingly the norm for New England. CLF’s success in the case has since been cited as a national model (e.g., “Using Legal Tools to Protect Lakes and Rivers from Climate Impacts“) and one CLF is working to replicate as it fights for clean water solutions on Cape Cod.

Now, CLF is actively participating in the new Lake Champlain Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) process to ensure that both EPA and Vermont officials succeed in finding a way to secure enough clean water in a changing climate, both because the job is imperative for Vermont’s future and because the lessons we learn here can apply elsewhere in New England and the nation. Fortunately, EPA is bringing some cutting-edge, forward-looking science to the table. For example, EPA has produced a report titled Projected Changes in Phosphorus Loads Due to Climate Change. It is helping Vermont policymakers plan for the added challenges that climate change presents to our ongoing pollution-control efforts. EPA is also working on a second report that will help regulators understand which on-the-ground pollution control measures are most likely to succeed when tested by extreme precipitation  like that we’ve seen recently and can expect more of as climate change worsens.

State officials are also recognizing the need to revisit regulatory standards applicable to developed areas that are the source of polluted runoff and increased flooding risks. CLF is an active stakeholder in the process of updating the state’s official Stormwater Management Manual. One key aim is to ensure that design standards match up with the scale of the extreme weather events we are witnessing. Moreover, CLF is advocating for pollution-control approaches that emphasize “Low Impact Design” and “Green Infrastructure.” These development techniques seek to preserve and/or mimic the natural landscape’s ability to soak up precipitation rather than concentrating its flow into destructive, heavily polluted volumes.

Since Vermont has been thrust into the forefront of states wrestling with this complicated issue, President Obama named Governor Peter Shumlin to his White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resiliency. Recognizing CLF’s leadership role in this effort, Governor Shumlin has tapped CLF advocates to join other Vermont experts in crafting climate-resilience recommendations to the White House Task Force.

The challenge of achieving clean water in a changing climate is a daunting one. First and foremost, we must do all we can to reduce climate-change pollution, thereby avoiding making the problem worse. In Vermont and throughout New England, CLF is fighting hard for clean energy solutions. At the same time, and with your continued support, CLF is helping Vermont lead the way toward water-pollution control measures that can stand up to the worst climate change has to offer.

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