The Lake Champlain TMDL


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The Lake Champlain TMDL

Posted by Karen Horn on 27 August 2015

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On Friday, August 14, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its Phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for the Vermont sections of Lake Champlain. All agree with EPA that phosphorus concentrations in Lake Champlain typically exceed water quality standards, most obviously at this time of year when blue-green algae blooms show up.

According to the EPA, a TMDL “specifies the amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still meet applicable water quality standards.” Since 2008, when the Conservation Law Foundation sued EPA to rescind the Vermont portion of the Lake Champlain TMDL, Vermont has been without a plan for meeting those water quality standards. Now, with Governor Shumlin signing Vermont’s legislation to clean up the waters of the state (not only Lake Champlain) on June 16 (Act 64) and the issuance of this draft TMDL, we have the ingredients necessary for a lake cleanup strategy. EPA worked closely with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to develop the parameters of the TMDL and held a number of meetings around the state to secure public input.

While there is not much in the new draft TMDL that is surprising, there is quite a lot that is alarming – because once the TMDL is finalized, Vermont will have to implement it. No one denies that large portions of Lake Champlain are in bad shape and do not meet water quality standards. Clearly, Lake Champlain’s health is vital to the Vermont economy. Nonetheless, we need to ask, can we afford the solution described in the TMDL? Is this in fact the most effective solution? How will progress toward phosphorus equilibrium in the lake be measured? How will we know when we have achieved a clean lake?

Almost half the land in Vermont drains to Lake Champlain and the sources of phosphorus therein include agriculture, streambank erosion, developed land (roads, parking lots lawns, buildings, athletic and industrial facilities) and wastewater treatment. Wastewater treatment facilities in Vermont, New York, and Quebec accounted for seven percent of the total phosphorus load between 2001 and 2010. Vermont treatment plants accounted for three percent of the annual load of 922 metric tons of phosphorus during those years. While the Vermont DEC focused on reducing non-point sources of phosphorus in its clean-up plans, the EPA focused on wastewater treatment facilities to determine reductions necessary to achieve water quality standards. Incorporating Vermont’s commitment to reducing phosphorus discharges from non-point sources, the federal agency decided that substantial reductions in wastewater treatment facility phosphorus discharges are a necessary component of the TMDL in some but not all segments of the lake.

EPA and DEC determined that there wasn’t enough data to definitively establish phosphorus discharges from categories of developed land. Accurate historical phosphorus data is available for wastewater treatment facilities but not much else. In essence, extensive modeling around contributors to the phosphorus problem only represent best guesses. EPA included a five percent margin of error in the TMDL “to account for any lack of knowledge concerning the relationship between load and wasteload allocations and water quality” in addition to making conservative estimates of work needed in each segment and with respect to each contributing source.

We understand the lack of data. We can see that phosphorus loading produces extreme results in stressed portions of the lake. Notwithstanding those realities, some of the requirements established in the TMDL strike us as severe given what the scientists know about phosphorus contributions to the lake. In all segments of Lake Champlain, EPA declared that 100 percent of “hydrologically connected” unpaved road segments will have to be retrofitted. That is approximately half the gravel road mileage in the state. The percentage of other “developed lands” that will require retrofits varies from one lake segment to another. Do all hydrologically connected unpaved roads contribute so much to phosphorus loads (5.6% of the total load) that every one of them needs to be fixed, relative to all other developed land in the state? Who will pay for it? How will we know when we have done enough?

Wastewater treatment facilities in Shelburne, Burlington, St. Albans, and Missisquoi Bay need to reduce their phosphorus discharges by 64.1, 66.7, 59.4, and 51.9 percent, respectively. The cost to bring this first tier of wastewater treatment facilities into compliance with new discharge limits is estimated at $70 million. Where will that money come from?

Taken together, hydrologically connected unpaved roads and wastewater treatment facilities contribute some eight to nine percent of the total phosphorus going to the lake. That is not insignificant by any means. The costs to address just those two components of the EPA TMDL are enormous, however, and the initial $8 million in funding available pales in comparison to the overall need of some $155 million per year in each of the next ten years according to the Act 138 report of January 2013.

This week, the EPA is hosting hearings on the draft TMDL. At last night’s hearing, Stephen Perkins from EPA said they just set the targets and require “reasonable assurances” that the goals for Lake Champlain are met. How Vermont pays for the cost of getting there is not in its wheelhouse. But it won’t be with additional financial help from EPA.

The first hearing in St. Albans last night boasted a capacity crowd. Today, August 27, there are two more:  10 a.m.-12 p.m., Doubletree Hotel, Burlington, and 2-4 p.m., Rutland Free Library, Rutland.

You only have until Tuesday, September 15, to submit comments to EPA. Be specific! The more targeted your comments are, the more likely they are to be considered by EPA.
Stephen Perkins (
Lake Champlain TMDL Project Manager
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 1 – New England
5 Post Office Square, Suite 100
Mail Code OEP06-3
Boston, MA 02109-3912.