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Vermont's Water

The cost of safe water / Streamside and lake shore buffers
Malformed frogs /Spotlight On: Kinney Connell and Her Friends

The quality of Vermont's surface water and groundwater affects all of the state's residents and visitors. Safe drinking water is essential to our good health, and clean rivers and lakes are critical to our enjoyment of the natural environment. Fortunately for Vermonters, the quality of our state's water is generally excellent.

Vermont has made tremendous headway in controlling direct-pipe discharges into lakes and rivers, but not nearly enough progress in reducing the volume of pollution from diffuse - or nonpoint - sources, such as leaking underground storage tanks, pesticides and fertilizers from farm fields, storm water run-off, road salt, and septic systems. Pollutants may run off directly into rivers and lakes, or they may enter the groundwater where they can be transported and pollute drinking water sources.

The close relationship between surface water and groundwater may also result in the pollution of surface waters by contaminated groundwater. Groundwater accounts for about one-third of the water in Vermont lakes and approximately 90 percent of the baseflow in rivers and streams. During droughts, all water in continuously flowing streams comes from groundwater. When high concentrations of pollutants are found in rivers and streams during an extended period of dry weather, it suggests groundwater is the source of contamination. For example, pollutants such as nitrate and phosphorus from farm fields can move through groundwater and pollute a drinking water source or contribute to algae blooms in nearby lakes.

Loans and grants to public community water systems
Figure 1 - Vermont's history of aid
Fiscal Year Loans and Grants
1966 1,000,000
1967 0
1968 1,000,000
1969 0
1970 0
1971 500,000
1972 1,000,000
1973 1,000,000
1974 1,500,000
1975 0
1976 2,000,000
1977 1,000,000
1978 1,470,000
1979 1,000,000
1980 1,500,000
1981 1,500,000
1982 1,110,000
1983 2,600,000
1984 1,300,000
1985 1,730,000
1986 1,500,000
1987 1,500,000
1988 1,040,000
1989 3,200,000
1990 6,250,000
1991 7,963,000
1992 12,300,000
1993 7,710,000
1994 4,428,000
1995 1,810,000
1996 840,000
1997 15,000,000
TOTAL: $84,751,000
For public community water systems, compliance with drinking water standards ensures excellence. Water systems regularly test for a range of contaminants, including inorganic chemicals (such as arsenic and lead) and volatile organic chemicals (vinyl chloride and benzene), along with bacteria and microparticulates (which can include algae). The presence of bacteria and microparticulates indicates untreated or unfiltered surface water has entered a water system. While surface water is most often associated with bacteria and microparticulates, groundwater can be a source. This condition also points to the possibility of viruses and pathogenic organisms in a water supply. Two preliminary rounds of a viral study of 14 public community groundwater sources conducted by the Agency's Water Supply Division in 1997 did not reveal any viruses or pathogenic organisms. Bacteria, however, has been documented at a number of water system over the years.

The cost of safe water

The price we pay for drinking water continues to rise. Finding new water sources has become more difficult as competing land uses jeopardize drinking water sources. Maintaining water systems is also becoming more expensive as operating and monitoring costs increase. Vermonters pay an estimated $1 per day per household for drinking water.

Vermont's long record of giving financial assistance to water systems has paralleled the increasing regulations governing these systems (Figure 1). The state has appropriated approximately $85 million in grants and loans for construction projects involving drinking water during the past three decades. In 1996, the federal government, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, authorized funds for drinking water projects and supporting activities. Financial commitments by the state and federal governments are anticipated to be between $8.5 million and $12 million annually during the next six years. These combined funds will be loaned to water systems; subsequent loan payments by water systems will then be reloaned to other water systems, creating a revolving fund for drinking water purposes. Water systems that apply for these funds will be ranked using a procedure that considers public health, compliance, and affordability on a per-household basis. This new fund includes money for providing technical assistance to small public water systems, augmenting the existing water operator program, and assisting with source protection.

Streamside and lake shore buffers

Protecting the fish, wildlife, and water quality of Vermont's lakes and streams involves more than controlling discharges from wastewater treatment plants and other direct sources of pollution. One of the most effective ways to ensure that rivers and lakes remain healthy and provide Vermonters with rewarding recreational opportunities is to maintain natural vegetation along their banks and shores.

There are many reasons to protect or restore these riparian buffers. Trees provide shade, which helps maintain cooler water temperatures during the summer. Cooler water can contain more dissolved oxygen, which is essential to all forms of aquatic life. Many species, including trout, prefer cooler water temperatures.

Riparian buffers also help remove pollutants and nutrients contained in run-off from farm fields, roads, and other sources. The pollutants and nutrients are broken down and incorporated into plants, soil, and microorganisms before reaching the water. Vegetated buffers along water bodies are usually more stable and less subject to erosion, which protects adjoining land and reduces the accumulation of sediment downstream. Buffers provide habitat for many species of wildlife, including songbirds, waterfowl, mink, and otter.

Finally, buffers provide a cost-effective means of limiting development in the high-risk zone immediately adjacent to rivers and lakes. Normally innocent streams can flood unexpectedly and cause tremendous property damage. Riparian buffers separate homes and other development from the bank or shore and reduce the volume of run-off which can cause water levels to rise abnormally.

Malformed frogs

In the late summer of 1996, Vermonters began discovering malformed frogs along lake shores and river banks, a phenomenon first reported in Minnesota. Frog malformities have been reported in at least nine states and two Canadian provinces. In Vermont, malformed frogs have been reported in eight counties. The story captured the attention of Vermonters concerned that the anomalies in frogs could indicate a level of environmental degradation with possible effects on human health. More than a year later, there is no scientific data supporting the link to human health; nor is there convincing data to eliminate this concern.

The Agency of Natural Resources and cooperating agencies and colleges collected and analyzed data from 19 sites in the Lake Champlain watershed during 1997. Focusing on the northern leopard frog, external malformities (primarily missing or malformed legs) were found in 8.5 percent of the frogs collected. The highest frequencies of deformities were found in frogs collected from the Poultney River in West Haven, East Creek in Orwell, and LaPans Bay in St. Albans. Citizens reported malformed frogs in 25 towns in 1997. Other species reported with malformations included the green frog, wood frog, bull frog, and American toad.

frog photoTo date, the cause of the deformities has not been identified; however, some researchers suspect chemicals humans add to the environment, such as pesticides, fertilizers, or byproducts of manufacturing, may be responsible for the malformations. Other researchers believe increased ultraviolet radiation may be affecting the frogs' eggs, which float on the surface of the water and absorb sunlight. There is also evidence that a naturally occurring parasite can alter limb development, although some scientists question whether the parasite hypothesis can explain the increase in malformation reports. Determining the actual cause is difficult since the potential causes may interact to cause the malformities.

Research into this environmental mystery continues. Anyone who notices malformations in frogs or other wildlife species should contact Rick Levey at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (802-244-4520).

Spotlight on Kinney Connell and Her Friends

Anyone interested in starting a watershed association and hoping to find a good model might want to look at the Friends of the Mad River. The success of this group demonstrates that a few people can make a difference in getting a community to focus on protecting and restoring a watershed. There are many dedicated and energetic people in the Mad River watershed, but one person in particular deserves recognition.

Kinney Connell, of Warren, helped to bring together and has successfully led the Friends of the Mad River into many facets of watershed planning, protection, and restoration. The Friends of the Mad River have co-authored a model watershed plan, conserved important riparian lands along the Mad, and pioneered watershed restoration techniques in Vermont. Kinney has been integral to the success of these projects. Kinney puts remarkable energy into helping people think about and care for the Mad River in their day-to-day lives. When an issue comes up that might impact the Mad River, a neighbor, town planner, or state official is likely to give Kinney a call to get her sense of the communities' interests.

Thanks to Kinney, when people in the Mad River Valley volunteer on a Friends project, they become part of a community of people who genuinely care for one another and the river that brought them together.