Addressing Threats to Lake Champlain

Lake Champlain is a critical resource for the State’s economy.  Vermonters and tourists swim, fish, and boat in it.  They drink its water and enjoy its beauty.  But the value of the lake has been under growing threat.  We know it contains too much phosphorous, a nutrient that stimulates excessive growth of algae.  Recently, though, another threat has captured our attention:  the release of untreated or partially treated wastewater that includes human waste, chemicals, pesticides, pathogens, and pharmaceuticals.

In 2018, over 10 million gallons of untreated wastewater and stormwater have been discharged into Lake Champlain.  These discharges are primarily the result of antiquated and inadequate infrastructure. Numerous Vermont communities use combined sewer systems – collection systems designed to convey sewage and stormwater through the same network of pipes to a wastewater treatment plant. In heavy rains, these systems are unable to handle the flow, leading to the discharge of untreated wastewater and stormwater through outlets, called outfalls, into State waterways.  Such discharges are referred to as combined sewer overflows (CSOs).  Heavy rains are not the only cause of CSOs, as seen in the recent discharge from Burlington’s system due to a computer malfunction.

In the past two years, the State has been making progress in addressing this issue, though much remains to be done.  Prior to September 2016, overflows were permitted discharges that did not violate any law, even if they included untreated wastewater.  By permitting CSOs, the State failed to incentivize towns to upgrade their systems or to separate wastewater from stormwater.

In 2016, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) adopted a new CSO rule.  The rule provides that, when a municipality obtains or renews a discharge permit, it must identify its CSO outfalls and work to eliminate them or reduce overflows. The municipality must implement technology-based minimum controls to reduce overflows.  If it is not able to provide these controls, the municipality must develop or update a Long Term Control Plan to abate and control its CSOs so that discharges meet Vermont Water Quality Standards.  Control alternatives can include reducing stormwater flows through the separation of combined stormwater and wastewater sewer lines, adding storage tanks or retention basins to hold overflow during storms, expanding treatment plant capacity, adding screening and disinfection facilities for overflow, and incorporating green stormwater infrastructure to reduce stormwater flow into combined sewer systems.

To implement the requirements of the CSO rule, municipalities will require significant funding.  In Act 103 of 2016 and Act 185 of 2018, the legislature amended the requirements for State grants and loans to make them more readily available to municipalities for infrastructure improvements to comply with the CSO rule.  Earlier this year, ANR adopted rules that establish a priority system for grants and loans for water pollution abatement projects.  This system takes into account how the improvements will affect public health and water quality, the resiliency and sustainability of the improvements, project readiness, and cost effectiveness.

Municipalities must take the lead in efforts to improve their wastewater infrastructure.  They must develop improvement projects, educate the public and seek input, and obtain public approval for bonding to help pay for the projects.  In turn, they can seek funding assistance through applying for grants and loans from the State.

Municipalities with CSOs are stepping up.  Numerous projects have been completed, are underway, or are in the planning stages.  This work is critical and should be expedited because, with climate change, the State will likely experience more frequent heavy rain events.  To ensure that municipalities are getting the job done, ANR has issued orders requiring them to come into compliance with the Combined Sewer Overflow rule and Vermont Water Quality Standards.  These orders are enforceable in State court.