“Watershed” is a new term for many of us, but it’s simple to define. A watershed is a geographic area in which all water flows into a single river. Each of our state’s major rivers, such as the White, Winooski, Lamoille, and Passumpsic, has its own watershed.

Within a watershed, whether the rain or snow falls on a mountainside, a village, or a farm field, the water eventually flows downhill to the river that carries the water away. Unfortunately, the water picks up many different contaminants along the way, including fertilizers and pesticides sprayed on lawns, motor oil and other fluids leaking from cars, and manure from farm fields.

We at the Agency of Natural Resources believe the best way to address these sources of contamination — known as nonpoint source pollution — is holistically and in partnership with the Vermonters who live in these watersheds.

The Agency has delineated 17 watershed planning units, some encompassing multiple watersheds (see map below). As part of our effort to conduct a basin planning process for all 17 regions in the next five years, the Agency, working with existing water-related organizations whenever possible, will establish a council comprised of area residents and state officials within each watershed to oversee the basin planning process.

The Agency’s Department of Environmental Conservation launched the Watershed Improvement Project in 1999 to implement short-term, action-oriented projects within watersheds while engaging Vermonters in the identification of long-term water quality management goals by way of the basin planning process. It’s a cooperative approach that calls on Vermonters to devote time to the stewardship of the lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, and wetlands in their communities. Although a regulatory approach to keep sewage and industrial waste out of rivers worked because the state could pinpoint each specific source of pollution, managing nonpoint source pollution solely through regulation would be unwieldy and difficult to enforce. Furthermore, while cleaning up existing pollution is an important part of the Watershed Improvement Project, protecting high-quality waters is an essential element as well. Preventing degradation of water quality is more sensible and cost-effective than restoring impaired waters.

The Agency views this watershed approach not only as a way of thinking ecologically, but also as a geographic focus for community involvement. Vermonters will begin to think of the environmental impacts of their lives on the watersheds where they live. To better serve Vermonters, the Agency is moving some of its programs, including the Watershed Improvement Project, from its Waterbury offices to the regional offices.

In the first major endeavor under the Watershed Improvement Project, the Agency developed a close working relationship with the White River Partnership, a watershed association with members throughout the White River watershed. The Partnership and the Agency organized public forums to identify community concerns regarding water quality and water uses. Both organizations focused their energy and resources to address these concerns collaboratively with other state, federal, and local groups. Projects that grew out of this effort included stabilization and restoration of river corridors, a public access to water study, a locally led water quality monitoring program, and an inventory of aging dams.

The result was a working draft of the White River Basin Water Quality Management Plan, released by the Agency in September 2001. The working draft made preliminary recommendations for how waters in the basin should be managed in the future, and outlined strategies for addressing local concerns such as the health of fisheries and access to public waters. The strategies in the working draft provide an opportunity for local groups, such as the White River Partnership and government agencies, to work collaboratively to resolve water quality concerns. After considering the range of public comments and meeting with stakeholders in the basin, the final draft will serve as a guide for the Agency in its work and become a resource for the public. The Agency expects to release the final draft plan in early 2002.

Within Vermont’s 17 major watersheds are sub-watersheds. These are the basins for streams and river branches that empty into larger rivers. Twenty-six Vermont streams in urban watersheds are classified as “impaired,” meaning they do not meet one or more of Vermont’s Water Quality Standards. Urban stormwater frequently contains contaminants such as automobile fluids, lawn chemicals, and sediment — often in great bursts following a storm.

The Agency of Natural Resources in 2001 established a watershed improvement permit system to accelerate the clean-up of urban streams polluted primarily by stormwater run-off. Because this problem is created by a variety of sources across the watershed — with stormwater run-off coming from hundreds of roads, parking lots, and lawns — the Agency believes it needs to be tackled across the watershed.

Under the watershed improvement permit system, many businesses, municipalities, and homeowners’ associations will need to repair, install, or upgrade stormwater treatment systems. As a result, the volume of pollutants entering urban streams will decline markedly. These permits will be individually crafted for each impaired watershed and will apply to three categories of stormwater discharges:

• Stormwater discharges to the impaired water from existing businesses and residential developments typically involving two or more acres of impervious surface (roofs and paved areas).

• Stormwater discharges that have been designated by the Department of Environmental Conservation as “significant stormwater discharges” to the receiving impaired water; and

• Proposed discharges of stormwater to the impaired water from new development projects.

The Agency believes this approach will improve stormwater-impaired waters, eliminate the Agency’s expired permit backlog, and allow new development to move forward through the permitting process.

MORE INFORMATION: Groundwater in the Ecosystem

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