Vermont's community-based watershed groups have worked hard to improve watershed health over several decades. Now they need your help to face two pressing water issues that demand sweeping action.
Issue number one: Worsening algae blooms in Lake Champlain have inspired a new-and-improved plan to clean up Lake Champlain. The Environmental Protection Agency is holding public meetings to explain the plan on November 17, 18 and 19. (Similar but lesser-known plans target Lake Memphremagog and Long Island Sound and encompass the rest of Vermont's waterways draining north, south, east or west into these impaired water bodies.)
Issue number two: Intense storms have become more common in recent years, including tropical storm Irene which brought us graphic images of flood damage, and we expect more extreme floods in future years.
Beyond the fact that both issues involve water, a connection might not be obvious. But trace the immediate crisis back to its cause and you find an intimate connection. Solving both of these problems requires changing the way we manage the landscape, which means acting locally - reaching out to thousands of land-owners and managers and convincing them to take action. Local watershed groups speak directly to decision-makers about the value of clean water and healthy streams, and they can use your help.
Why is grassroots action so important to address Vermont's water pollution and flooding problems? As a rural state, Vermont has few direct discharges from factories or waste treatment plants where we can use "end-of-pipe" treatments to filter out pollutants. Instead, most of our water pollution comes from runoff across the landscape. Polluted runoff flows from eroding dirt roads and ditches, slumping stream-banks that lack natural wooded buffers, corn fields left bare of cover before planting or after harvest, poorly-sited woods roads or stream crossings, dirty urban pavement draining directly into nearby streams... See the pattern?
Reducing these "non-point" pollution sources is much more complicated than up-grading an urban waste treatment plant or filtering an industrial outlet pipe. Solutions include rain barrels and rain gardens that retain rainfall on suburban properties; no-till, cover crops, manure injection, and vegetated stream buffers on farms; dirt roads that resist washouts to keep sediment out of streams; water bars and portable skidder bridges for logging operations; and diverse other measures that reduce or filter runoff one small step at a time.
Many of these measures have the added benefit of reducing flood damage by slowing runoff or giving rivers space to move as they like to do.
Unfortunately, solutions rarely involve quick fixes and it's not always easy to sustain attention - and investment - over the long haul. Yet sustained effort is what it will take to help our waterways regain health and become more resilient to severe storms.
Big environmental problems like these can seem overwhelming. Joining a team of dedicated like-minded can-do volunteers is a great antidote to despair. Many hands make light work, and improving watershed health certainly requires many hands. Volunteers are needed to:
-- plant streamside trees and rain gardens;
-- educate school children and shoreline landowners;
-- sample water quality in streams;
-- inventory storm drains;
-- haul trash out of rivers;
-- develop websites and newsletters and Facebook pages to involve and inform more people;
-- raise funds and do mailings to support and expand this important work...
Whatever your particular talents and interests, your local watershed group has a job for you.
Watershed groups operate in most parts of the state, and a network called Watersheds United Vermont was founded a year ago to support them. On November 19, Watersheds United Vermont is partnering with the Lake Champlain Basin Program to host a meeting for local watershed groups throughout Vermont, as well as some from the New York side of the Lake. This is our chance to trade ideas and gain organizational skills to ramp up the work throughout the region.
Please check out the map at www.watershedsunitedvt.org/about/members to see who is active where you live, or contact Ann Ingerson, Program Coordinator for Watersheds United Vermont, at firstname.lastname@example.org about starting up a new effort in your neighborhood.
Remember these inspiring words from Margaret Meade: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Ann Ingerson is the program coordinator for Watersheds United Vermont.