Tucked between the parking lots, the malls and the interstate, Potash Brook winds its way through the heart of South Burlington on its way to Lake Champlain.
"Oil and grease from cars, chemicals: phosphorus, nitrogen, bacteria-- all of that's going in these streams," said Chris Kilian of the Conservation Law Foundation.
The brook is one of a dozen urban streams at the core of a new state stormwater pollution permit released last month. Unlike previous versions of the 5-year, MS4 permit, state regulators say the big difference this time is the idea of long-term flow restoration plans as a means to measure reduced pollution.
"If you had to measure exactly, precisely what the reduction was in pollutants that might be really challenging to do. But it's much easier to measure the reduced amount of runoff by just measuring this flow in the streams. So, that's part of what this permit does, it says we're going to measure your success by how well we are able to reduce the amount of flow that goes into these streams during rainfall events," Vt. Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said.
More than a dozen urban communities around the state, from St. Albans to Burlington to Rutland, will have 20 years to come up with flow restoration plans-- twice as long as state regulators originally proposed.
South Burlington, which started its own stormwater utility back in 2005, has been at the forefront.
"This pond collects runoff from the impervious surfaces in the neighborhood: the roadway, sidewalk and rooftop. It detains it and slowly releases it to the streams, so you don't get the in-stream erosion, the bank erosion. It also removes pollutants that are in that water," said Tom DiPietro, the deputy director at South Burlington Public Works.
DiPietro says the new permit's 20-year timeline is critical to helping his city get the nearly $40 million in proposed future projects complete.
"We've been creating more and more impervious area for years in these communities around Chittenden County and so to fix the problem in just 3-5 years would be extremely difficult and extremely expensive, but having that timeline, the longer timeline to do this work, is very helpful to make it more manageable," DiPietro said.
But critics say the new permits lack specificity, don't allow for public comment and most importantly delay the cleanup of these waterways.
"It concerns us that there has been so much delay already and there really isn't time for more delay for these brooks. There really isn't time for more delay in terms of cleaning up Lake Champlain," Kilian said.
DEC officials counter that the extended timeframe is needed to give communities the flexibility to plan, not an excuse to procrastinate.
"So it may be for some communities, it's going to take 20 years for them to be able to replace all of the various pieces of their infrastructure that they need to do, and it would be unrealistic frankly to ask them to do it more quickly. And we didn't want to have a schedule that we knew they couldn't meet out of the box," Mears said.
Other complaints include that the new stormwater permit doesn't even address phosphorus, one of the main contributors to Lake Champlain pollution.
"This is not going to be the solution to all of Lake Champlain's woes and all the phosphorus that's running into our streams. This is just one piece of that puzzle," Mears said.
The price tag for municipalities to make the stormwater fixes required under the new permit is expected to run more than $100 million. The Legislature is expected to look at funding sources this session.
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