Five-year study concludes stormwater is top Burlington Bay issue

Burlington Bay, Lake Champlain's most urban harbor, meets water-quality standards and boasts a diverse mix of fish and aquatic life. However, stormwater pollutants make the water unsafe for recreation in some shoreline areas, and the presence of other pollutants and invasives pose challenges for the bay's future, unless action is taken.

These and other results of a five-year, University of Vermont study of the bay's condition were released Wednesday, May 11 at press conference at the Burlington Community Boathouse. The $1 million project, led by Mary Watzin, director of UVM's Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory and a natural resources professor at the university, was funded by Green Mountain Power Corporation and other companies and individuals as part of an agreement with the Lake Champlain Committee and local citizen representatives related to the remediation of the Pine Street Barge Canal Superfund site, brought under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCA) or "Superfund."

The event brought together, for the first time in five years, many of the citizens, government leaders and others who had a stake in the project.

"One of the best ways to avoid the Superfund sites of tomorrow is to understand the environmental threats to our natural resources today. The Burlington Bay project was designed to assess the current state of the Bay and highlight problem areas so that we can act," said Lori Fisher, an original coordinator of the citizen group that played a part in the Pine Street Barge Canal clean-up. Fisher is now executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee.

GMP was among those named responsible for the canal contamination by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in 1998, EPA directed the responsible parties to pay $4.3 million to implement a remedy that included containing canal contamination with an underwater cap, restoration of wetlands areas at the site, and long-term maintenance and monitoring. The canal had been declared a Superfund site in 1982.

Initially, the EPA proposed a $50 million clean-up plan that was strongly rejected by citizen and government groups as too costly and potentially hazardous. In a separate voluntary agreement crafted by the Lake Champlain Committee and local citizens, GMP agreed to fund $3 million in additional projects to improve the greater Burlington environment, including the Burlington Bay research project. Other parties later agreed to share in funding the projects.

"The release of the Burlington Bay report, coming on the heels of completion of the cap in the barge canal last fall, is a significant milestone," said Karen Lumino, remedial project manager for U.S. EPA, New England sites. "EPA congratulates those individuals who worked so hard to make both happen."

"Since the local community was concerned about water quality and healthy recreational use of the bay and its shoreline," said Watzin, whose lab is part of UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, "we built a project around these public concerns. We focused on stormwater flowing into the Bay, toxins in the sediment, blue-green algae, and the invasion of zebra mussels. We also hoped to document any changes in the fish and other organisms that were occurring after the significant investments to clean up the inner harbor in the 1990s."

Watzin listed highlights of the study:

  • The health of the bay remains resilient. Water quality is generally good and meets state criteria.
  • The concentration of phosphorous in stormwater is very high. This stimulates algae growth, especially at the places stormwater enters the lake.
  • Stormwater carries high levels of coliform bacteria, making it unsafe to swim along the waterfront except at public beaches.
  • With the exception of road salt in winter, scientists did not find high levels of poisonous pollutants in the stormwater.
  • Toxic blooms of blue-green algae occurred in 1999 and 2000, but there have been no toxic outbreaks in the last several summers in Burlington Bay.

Although no high levels of poisonous pollutants were found in stormwater, there were pulses of lower concentrations of a wide variety of substances, and there is residual pollution in the sediments in the harbor. Watzin says this pollution deserves additional research to determine if there are subtle effects on fish and other organisms that use the harbor. She also hopes to work with the city to help identify critical sources areas of pollutants and work to reduce them.

"However, the biggest changes we will see in the bay in the next decade may come from the expansion of zebra mussels across wide expanses of the bay's bottom, and the invasion of non-native fishes. The Lake Champlain ecosystem is resilient, but to understand and manage these changes, we will need to continue to investigate their impacts."

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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