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ECOSYSTEM PERSPECTIVES

[Acid Rain Deposition][Education]

 

leaf photoStresses to Vermont's environment come in many forms, with our atmosphere and our waterways often carrying the pollutants. Relative to most of the northeastern United States, our state is less developed and less polluted, in large part because Vermont never industrialized to the degree of its neighbors. Nevertheless, Vermont's air and water quality declined to the point in the 1960s where mostof our rivers were unsafe for swimming and fishing and the open burning of trash at town dumps fouled our air.

With the passage of Act 250, construction of sewage treatment plants, passage of the federal Clean Air Act, and enactment of numerous other initiatives, we've made huge gains during the past 30 years in restoring and protecting our natural resources.

More work remains. As mentioned earlier, Vermont has committed itself to reducing the amount of phosphorus flowing each year into Lake Champlain by 55 metric tons in the next 20 years. Vermont will achieve approximately one-quarter of the reductions by upgrading sewage treatment plants; the remainder will come through reductions in nonpoint source pollution. Phosphorus reduction is also needed in the state's other major watersheds - Lake Memphremagog and the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers.

Habitat degradation is the most significant problem facing Vermont's aquatic ecosystems. The causes of habitat degradation are diverse and widespread. However, human activities that cause nonpoint source pollution are among the most significant causes of aquatic habitat destruction and impairment.

Nonpoint source pollution is not defined solely as run-off from farm fields and lawns. As watersheds become highly developed and paved over with impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, storm run-off increases as water cannot infiltrate into the soil in Exotics, ecosystemorder to recharge the ground water. At the same time, stream flows become too high for the existing channel to carry, causing streambanks to erode. Stream channels and the aquatic life they support can be destroyed.

In addition, activities that alter the natural flow of rivers and streams or artificially manipulate the level of water in lakes and reservoirs have severe consequences for aquatic habitat. Manipulation of water levels in lakes and reservoirs can result in the elimination of significant amounts of productive and diverse habitat. The effects can devastate wetlands and a variety of plants and animals associated with shorelines.

Loons are particularly susceptible to fluctuating water levels. These distinctive birds are designed for diving and pursuing fish underwater. Their legs are positioned far back on their bodies for this reason, but as a result they cannot walk on land as ducks can. Although they nest on land, they must remain very close to water for survival and ease of movement. If a loon builds a waterside nest and then the shoreline moves several feet away - because the lake is getting drawn down - the loon may abandon the eggs. The other, more severe, problem is flooding. Since the nest is often only a few inches higher than the water level, a rise in water elevation can flood a nest and drown the eggs. Of known nest failures in Vermont during the past 19 years, 26 percent were flooded and 5 percent stranded.

Sedimentation is the number one enemy of a high-quality aquatic habitat in rivers and streams. Activities that cause erosion and the subsequent discharge of sediment into surface waters can cause significant damage to aquatic habitat and the biological communities supported by that habitat.

Vermont is well-known for its extensive network of dirt roads. While these roads are an integral part of the Vermont landscape, they are also a major source of sediment in surface waters when improperly built and maintained. The Agency coordinates a program called "Better Backroads: Clean Water You Can Afford." Through this program, Agency staff work with town road commissioners and crews to promote and establish road maintenance practices that will protect water quality and save funds over the long term. Implementation of this program has clarified the critical nature of cooperation between the state, towns, and landowners in order to effect significant changes in the way dirt roads are maintained. The towns of Stamford and Elmore are recent winners of Backroads Recognition Program Awards for excellence in culverting and ditching practices, respectively.

 

Acid Rain Deposition

Acid rain was considered one of the most serious issues threatening Vermont's air, water, and forest resources during the 1980s. Of particular concern were the effects from deposition of acidic sulfates and nitrates on our sensitive high-elevation ecosystems, where thin soils and resistant bedrock are unable to neutralize the acids falling in our rain and snow. In Vermont's aquatic systems, acidic conditions can limit biological diversity both directly and indirectly by rendering certain toxic materials found in nature, such as aluminum, more toxic to aquatic life. The Agency of Natural Resources established a number of long-term monitoring programs to determine the statewide status and trends of atmospheric deposition, chemistry and biology of surface waters, and forest health conditions. State agencies, the Legislature, our congressional delegation, university researchers, environmental groups, and private citizens helped lead the fight to seek reductions in sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions from fossil fuel-burning electric utilities in upwind states.

In the 1990 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act, Congress included an innovative, market-based acid rain control program aimed primarily at reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from electric utilities. Between 1990 and 1994, national sulfur dioxide emissions from utilities subject to this acid rain control program declined by about 15 percent, and we have seen a similar decline in the sulfate concentration of Vermont precipitation (Figure 2). Similar declines have been noted in lakes with long-term monitoring records (Figure 3).

National nitrogen oxide emissions from utilities, however, have remained largely unchanged since 1990, decreasing in nearby states such as New York and New Jersey but increasing in Ohio and West Virginia further upwind. The net effect has been an increase in the nitrate concentration in Vermont precipitation, partially offsetting the sulfate reduction, such that total precipitation acidity levels in the 1990s are not much different from those in the 1980s. Likewise, long-term monitoring of acidic Vermont lakes has shown few detectable trends in the past 16 years.

 

Education

As we've learned again and again in repairing environmental damage, prevention is less costly and less confrontational than enforcement actions. The preferred means of prevention are education and voluntary compliance. With more knowledge about our natural resources, Vermonters can make informed decisions about our forests and waterways. The Agency of Natural Resources has several educational programs in place to stress good stewardship of our environment:

Project Learning Tree is a nationally recognized and award-winning environmental education program designed to raise young people's awareness and appreciation of forests. The workshops are presented by trained facilitators to schools and clubs throughout the state. In 1996, the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation trained 12 facilitators; these facilitators and their colleagues reached 85 educators and 1,500 students. Project Learning Tree is a partnership program, and workshops are often co-sponsored with the next two programs.

Project WILD and Project Aquatic WILD, available from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, are the most widely used conservation and environmental education programs for teachers from kindergarten through high school. The programs emphasize fish and wildlife because of their intrinsic and ecological values, as well as their importance as a basis for teaching how ecosystems function. Project WILD addresses the need for humans to act as responsible citizens of our planet. The materials are offered free through day-long workshops. During fiscal year 1996, the Department held eight workshops, reaching 174 educators.

DANDELIONSProject WET, offered by the Department of Environmental Conservation, is designed to promote awareness, knowledge, and stewardship of Vermont's water resources. In 1996, Project WET, in conjunction with Project Learning Tree, held its first leadership training. Twenty-four trained facilitators now offer teacher workshops, focusing on wetlands, watersheds, water quality monitoring, or general water resource issues. More than 100 teachers attended these workshops in 1996.

Approximately 4,000 Vermont students, along with their teachers and parents, attended interpretive programs in Vermont's state parks in 1996.

The Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, primarily through county foresters, is hosting workshops, producing publications and cooperating with landowner associations to foster better stewardship of Vermont's forests. More than 200 landowners increased their level of participation in 1996, developing long-range management plans through the Forest Stewardship and Current Use Programs. Partners in bringing stewardship to the land include more than 100 forestry consultants, the Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists, and several regional woodland owners associations.

Vermonters who live in villages, suburbs, and cities need to understand the role they play as land stewards, as well. Shade trees are a significant regulator of the developed environment. The management and care of these "urban" trees is accomplished through the Agency's Urban and Community Forest Program. Fifty-eight municipalities participated in 1996, planting more than 400 trees and participating in more than 35 management projects. The Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation also raises the public's awareness of forests through news releases related to fall foliage color, wildfire hazards, shade tree planting and maintenance, and insect and disease outbreaks.

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