Vermont targets roads to reduce Lake Champlain pollution

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DANVILLE >> From paved city streets to hilly dirt roads, runoff from Vermont's roadways contributes more than 10 percent of the pollution flowing into Lake Champlain that fuels toxic algae blooms in its bays.

A new law is targeting that erosion by soon requiring all cities and towns to inventory the more than 13,000 miles of municipal roads, and implement storm water management plans for roads at risk of polluting waterways. For paved roads, it could mean sweeping streets and removing sediment and cleaning out catch basins on a regular basis. For gravel roads, the work could include adding or widening ditches, lining them with stones or grass or upsizing culverts.

"Municipal roads for the most part have not been regulated at all. So this is kind of new territory," said Jim Ryan, coordinator of the Department of Environmental Conservation's Municipal Roads Program.

Other sources of phosphorus-laden runoff of rain and snowmelt come from farms, parking lots and discharges from municipal wastewater treatment plants.

The municipal road permitting process is expected to be developed by December 2017. The exact timeline for the work has not yet been set.

Ryan said some towns see that financially it pays off to do the work so they don't have to keep going back and fixing the roads that wash out in storms. He said the upgraded roads also fair better in major flooding events, like Irene.

Some towns are trying to get ahead of the curve, though the amount of work seems daunting.

Danville, for example, has won several grants from the Vermont Transportation's Agency Better Back Roads program to help pay for lining ditches with stone on a steep dirt road near a tributary; adding check dams — collections of stones that slow down the speed of runoff in ditches; and installing a concrete covered culvert, with different levels of baffles inside it, again to slow down the water and force it to drop the sediment.

"I have targeted areas that I'm going to concentrate on over the next few years," Danville Town Road Foreman Keith Gadapee said. "I figure the more I can get done before this permit process comes in place I'm going to be ahead of the game."

The state has promised that funding will be available to help cover the road work associated with the state's new clean water law, but local officials worry it won't be enough.

"It's a very heavy lift for local governments," said Karen Horn, the director of public policy and advocacy for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

The Vermont Clean Water Fund Board earlier this month recommended spending $10.4 million to reduce nutrient pollution from farms, roads and municipalities. Of that, $1.4 million would be dedicated to municipal road inventories and improvements over two years.

"The thing that we all need to remember is it's not all going to happen this year, there's a phase-in period," Horn said. "But still towns are looking at significant high expenses in the next 10 years."


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