When people think of Sugarbush Resort, they envision scenes like the one pictured below: high mountain peaks blanketed with pristine snow beckoning skiers to swoosh down the slopes. Of course when springtime comes that snow melts, feeding small streams that flow first into the iconic Mad River and eventually to Lake Champlain. These high mountain streams are incredibly important yet sensitive and vulnerable links in the clean water chain.
A skier rests on a sunny day at Sugarbush. Photo by pinneyshaun @ Flickr Creative Commons
Rice Brook is one of the streams that flows through the heart of the resort area. Over the years, runoff polluted with sediment from gravel roads, driveways, and parking lots degraded water quality and habitat conditions in the stream. By 1996, the Brook no longer supported a healthy community of aquatic wildlife, leading state officials and EPA to “list” the Brook as “impaired.”
Sadly, it was a story unfolding around build-out at other ski areas across the state and in areas around lower elevation streams where forest and farmland was being converted into stripmalls and other pavement-heavy uses. By the early-2000’s, sixteen other Vermont streams were also officially listed as impaired due to runoff pollution, a.k.a. “stormwater,” with many more placed at risk of impairment.
During this time, Conservation Law Foundation and other partners began an 0ngoing advocacy campaign pressuring regulators to enforce requirements in clean water laws designed to ensure that developers of properties that contributed polluted runoff to streams were doing their part for cleanup.
Sugarbush got ahead of the curve in accepting responsibility and committing the resources necessary to do its part for clean water moving forward. Sugarbush partnered with the environmental consulting firm of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. (VHB) to tackle the problem.
Through implementation of a time-bound, state-approved “Water Quality Remediation Plan,” the Sugarbush team restored clean water and healthy aquatic communities to Rice Brook, creating a template for action that can be copied by others responsible for restoring degraded streams around the state and the region. Sugarbush and VHB:
- Identified the specific sources of the problem
- Established cleanup targets by studying conditions in healthy streams similar to Rice Brook
- Designed and implemented “best management practices” and structures to restore the landscape’s natural flood storage and pollutant-removal capacity
- Educated resort employees and contractors about streambank restoration, erosion prevention, and other water quality practices
- Monitored water quality and aquatic organisms to track progress
- Committed resources to ongoing operation and maintenance of runoff control and treatment structures
In recognition of the results, EPA approved the removal of Rice Brook from the list of impaired waters and Governor Peter Shumlin bestowed Sugarbush and VHB with a 2012 Environmental Excellence Award.
Too often, critics complain that it is either too expensive or too difficult to restore clean water to degraded rivers and streams. In their application for the Environmental Excellence Award, Sugarbush and VHB answered those critics, pointing out the multiple economic benefits to the tourist-based economy from their successful cleanup effort, including:
- water supply protection
- access to recreation such as swimming and fishing
- aesthetic enjoyment of clean waters by resort guests and others
- ecological sustainability
- greater certainty in future permitting processes based on proven approaches to mitigate development runoff impacts
Congratulations to Sugarbush and VHB for showing Vermont how sweet clean water success can be.