BLUE Certifies Burlington-Area Residential Properties as Stormwater-Friendly for Over a Decade

By Shari Halik, Communications Professional
December 06, 2022

BLUE is a residential stormwater management incentive and certification program currently running in Burlington, Vermont. Burlington residents interested in learning about actions to improve water quality and reduce their stormwater footprint are eligible for free property assessments.

Operating in the Lake Champlain basin since prior to 2010, BLUE has been supported at one time or another by nine municipalities in the watershed. BLUE evaluators work with homeowners to identify opportunities for them to install practices that help reduce the amount of rainwater and snowmelt that flow to nearby waterways and to engage in watershed-friendly stewardship activities to help protect local waters from pollutants and cyanobacteria blooms. 

Lake Champlain Sea Grant, based at the University of Vermont (UVM), partners with a team from the City of BurlingtonFitzgerald Environmental Associates LLCJust Water Consulting, and UVM to implement the BLUE Program in Burlington. The City funds the program with some support from Lake Champlain Sea Grant.

“We provide educational resources to increase awareness and understanding of water quality issues and offer recommendations for residents to reduce sources of water pollution, including managing for erosion,” said Jillian Sarazen, who leads BLUE for Lake Champlain Sea Grant.

The University of Vermont, through its Office of the Vice President for Research, officially gained ownership of BLUE in the summer of 2022 from creator and founder James Ehlers, former executive director of Lake Champlain International. Ehlers began developing the BLUE program in the early 2000s.

History of BLUE

“There was a vacuum in public policy and the regulatory world around stormwater management; nobody was doing it in the early 2000s,” said Ehlers. “I had to explain what stormwater was—that it was multiple polluting sources all draining into our drinking water bodies. How do you address this in a whole housing development of private landowners?”

His answer? He created a program that motivated individual homeowners to be part of the solution and gave managers, such as the City of Burlington, a way to assess stormwater mitigation activities that are underway.

Over several years, Ehlers networked with liaisons in the environmental, public policy, and nonprofit sectors—from water resources and ecology experts to real estate, financial, and regulatory professionals—to help shape BLUE into a quantifiable, measurable, and trackable stormwater mitigation and certification program. Ehlers’ arduous work paid off.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued patents for BLUE in 2011 and 2012. Lake Champlain International acted as the BLUE licensee and starting in 2016, Juliana Dixon, then a program director at LCI, managed BLUE for Ehlers who had designed the program to be replicated anywhere and run by licensees.

“There were already certification programs for green buildings, appliance energy efficiency, and more recently organic and fair-trade products.” said Ehlers. “Why not stormwater management?”

He set out to build a certification program that was even better for stormwater management and to add legitimacy, created an auditing process to check certified properties every three years. Ehlers also worked to cast the widest net possible for participants.

Homeowner Actions Big and Small Add Up

BLUE consultants work with individual homeowners to develop a plan that works within their particular financial means and property characteristics. Plans might include: redirecting gutters, putting in a rain garden to treat driveway runoff, installing a permeable driveway that helps rainwater drain into the ground, constructing an open top culvert across a driveway to collect runoff, and more. Homeowners can get certified no matter how small the changes or how much they can contribute financially.

“Not everyone can afford to tear up their driveway and install pervious pavers, but some people can,” said Ehlers. “I intended to help people feel part of the solution in any way they could and be proud to display a BLUE sign of certification on their lawn.”

When individual residents do their own stormwater management, this decreases what the community or municipality needs to do to reduce stormwater runoff to local waterways.

“If everyone diverts their gutter downspout to a rain garden, there is that much less runoff the city has to manage in the street drainage system,” said Ehlers. “I hope to see BLUE continue to provide a solution that people can believe in and pass on to others.”

For its innovative BLUE program, LCI earned a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region I Merit Award for all of New England in 2012, and BLUE was approved by the EPA Office of Water. At that time, more than 3000 homeowners in five Vermont towns had learned about the program.

“BLUE was the most inspiring, most immediately tangible program I have ever helped to manage,” said Dixon. “Most programs make change over the long term, but BLUE could be implemented within months.”

Dixon believed so strongly in the program that, in 2018, she established an independent consulting firm solely focused on running BLUE as a licensee. BLUE certification soon grew to 300 households in six communities in the greater Burlington area.

Runoff-reducing projects instigated by BLUE-certified households captured an estimated 133,188 gallons of stormwater in 2020.

“I took advantage of this opportunity and am very glad I did,” wrote a BLUE participant on Front Porch Forum. “Highly recommend… an excellent way for us to protect our lake [and] take personal responsibility and action specific to each property.”

Spreading Water Quality Awareness and More

“The positive response from residents was amazing,” said Dixon, who expanded the educational side of BLUE by producing printed hand-outs about runoff, soil nutrients, green infrastructure, and the connection of individual properties to waterways. “The program impact went way beyond spreading water quality awareness.”

She met a Burlington father who included his two young daughters in a consultation with Dixon, so they could meet “a woman in science.” Dixon also attended a neighborhood tea at which residents made a group decision to turn community property from short, mown grass into plantings that would better reduce stormwater runoff.

“It’s all about the kinds of decisions we make as individuals that become collective actions and solutions,” said Dixon. “I envision BLUE developing volunteer programs in which community members help neighbors install green stormwater infrastructure such as rain gardens.”

With growing homeowner interest in BLUE, by 2021, Dixon could no longer support the program independently. As Lake Champlain Sea Grant had partnered with BLUE as early as 2016 and became a funding supporter of the program in 2019, Ehlers and Dixon passed management of the program on to Lake Champlain Sea Grant in 2022. At the same time, the City of Burlington was revamping its stormwater incentive program and provided support for a team that included Lake Champlain Sea Grant and the BLUE program.

Currently, Sarazen who is the Green Infrastructure Collaborative coordinator with Lake Champlain Sea Grant, along with an undergraduate intern from the University of Vermont and a consultant from each of Fitzgerald and Just Water, conduct property evaluations for interested Burlington homeowners. During the 2022 season, the BLUE team conducted more than 50 property evaluations across the City of Burlington.

“This year, several residents have decided to take action by installing residential green stormwater infrastructure and will take advantage of rebates offered through the program,” said Sarazen. We look forward to continuing the success of the program into 2023!”

Learn more about BLUE BTV and how to become certified in 2023.