I Believe: 'We can improve Vermont's rivers as a lasting legacy for our children'

Declan McCabe

Burlington Free Press
January 16, 2011

Rivers and streams are simultaneously of inherent habitat value and of essential ongoing utility to human populations. Our cities were established on rivers for the infrastructure they provide. But our close association with rivers has caused and continues to cause damage to rivers. I believe we are well into a new chapter in our interactions with the environment and specifically in our care of rivers and streams. And unlike larger environmental problems, rivers are a special case where local cleanup yields direct local improvement.
A range of erosion-prevention and small stormwater-control projects have been implemented in Vermont. At the town scale, South Burlington's stormwater utility manages and upgrades the city's stormwater infrastructure to ensure compliance with Vermont standards designed to reduce impacts on receiving waters. Smaller-scale examples of improvement include St. Michael's College's collaborations with the state of Vermont and Fletcher Allen on two retention-pond projects to collect runoff from Fort Ethan Allen and the Fanny Allen Walk In Care Clinic parking lot.
By containing and then slowly releasing stormwater, these projects reduce stream-bed and -bank erosion and help sustain water flow during dry spells. River-bank stabilization at Muddy Brook in South Burlington has been recently implemented to reduce sediment input and to protect the nearby roadway. Because algal-bloom-causing phosphorus binds to soil and organic particles, any reduction in erosion and sediment loading to streams in turn reduces phosphorus loading. Sustained long-term reductions in phosphorus loading are needed to reduce the potential for toxic algal blooms and eutrophication of Lake Champlain's bays.
Agency of Natural Resource initiatives from 2010 include: grants announced in May to reduce phosphorus export from southern Champlain valley farms; the July ban on phosphorus in automatic dishwasher detergents; October recommendations for improved best management practices for town roads and bridges to reduce transportation-related pollution; over $1.3 million in ecosystem-restoration grants awarded between July and November through Vermont Clean and Clear to fund erosion- and pollution-reduction and -prevention projects.
A large network of grassroots organizations such as Vermont River Conservancy, the Chittenden County Stream Team, local watershed groups, conservation districts, and land trusts together with the Lake Champlain Committee ensure that Vermont residents are well educated about our effects on waterways. Vermont Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research Streams Project has contributed to education by engaging citizen scientists from high schools in close collaboration with professional scientists from the state's colleges and university.
There are multiple opportunities for action to reduce household and land-owner impacts on streams, such as hands-on workshops aimed at reducing stormwater runoff by constructing rain barrels and rain gardens.
The multi-pronged combination of legislation, education and direct action gives me real hope that we can see improvements in water and habitat quality in our streams and in Lake Champlain.
Progress in the lake itself is hampered in part by legacy sediments remaining from past deforestation, but small-scale improvements in individual streams will ensure this generation does not exacerbate existing problems. To address lake- and bay-scale problems including algal blooms and beach closings requires that we protect as many streams and even drainage ditches as possible in the Champlain Basin.
Because river habitats are flushed seasonally by high-water events, we stand a greater chance of more rapidly seeing the fruits of our actions to improve water quality there than in lakes. By reducing silt input to impacted waterways, we give our rivers a fighting chance at recovery.
Owners of land abutting streams and drainage ditches are in a unique position to improve river and also lake habitats. Planting or just permitting natural growth of plant communities near waterways reduces particle loading and the impacts of stormwater runoff. Waterways gain an additional benefit from such plant buffers in the form of shade. Shade cools water temperatures and as a result increases dissolved oxygen content. All of these improvements to stream habitat increase the overall biotic integrity of the system. Temperature is one of the most important factors that distinguishes a trout stream from any other stream.
Unlike anthropogenic-induced climate change, acid rain, mercury deposition or ozone depletion, river habitat largely is a local issue, where local impacts and improvements have local consequences. We - Vermont residents, homeowners and landowners - have the means, and I believe the will, to make the incremental changes necessary to clean our rivers and streams. If we can accomplish that task, then Lake Champlain, our greatest aquatic asset, playground and tourist attraction, gradually and surely will improve.
Declan McCabe is an Associate Professor of biology at Saint Michael's College and a Science Advisor for Vermont EPSCoR's Streams Project. He lives with his Wife Margaret Vizzard and three children in South Burlington. Declan can be reached at 654 2626 or dmccabe@smcvt.edu.

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