The following is the opening argument from a petition submitted to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2014 by Save the Sound, The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, and the Connecticut River Watershed Council among others intended to force appropriate and timely cleanup of the Long Island Sound (Sound).
“…. the 2000 Long Island Sound Nitrogen Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) is not effectively serving as a tool to achieve Water Quality Standards. In order to come into compliance with the Clean Water Act, EPA must amend the 2000 Long Island Sound TMDL or establish a new TMDL.” A TMDL establishes a maximum amount of a pollutant discharged from all sources into a body of water at a concentration level that will bring that body of water back into compliance with water quality standards.

The concern in the Sound, as a saltwater body is that excessive nitrogen levels stimulate plant growth. When the plants die as they decompose, they consume available dissolved oxygen. Some areas in the Sound have such low levels of dissolved oxygen that at certain times of the year those waters can no longer support any aquatic life creating a “dead zone.” Obviously, a dead zone is a clear breach of water quality standards.

Save the Sound asserts that 15 years after the adoption of the Sound cleanup plan the dead zone is as large as or larger than in 2000 when the plan went into effect. The petition rightfully asks, among other things that EPA, “Establish cost-effective nitrogen reduction mandates for Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont sewage treatment plants (STPs) that do not currently employ nitrogen removal technology.“

The quotations from the Save the Sound petition might sound familiar to some Vermonters, as the intent of the language is what the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) offered up when they filed their suit against EPA in 2011 to overturn the Lake Champlain TMDL and force reductions in phosphorous discharges to Lake Champlain.

In Lake Champlain, an overabundance of phosphorous stimulates excessive plant growth and fosters wide-ranging menacing blooms of toxic blue green algae. One of the outcomes of the CLF suit could be that EPA requires significant reductions in phosphorous discharges from all the STPs. Studies show that the costs of removing this additional amount of phosphorous will be scary prohibitive and remove only marginal amounts of phosphorous.

Vermont responded to the Champlain situation with the Vermont Clean Water Act, suggesting a different approach. As opposed to huge capital investment in STPs, they want to reduce runoff from farms, roadways, developments, and other sources of stormwater to meet the goals of the new Champlain TMDL. If the Vermont plan offers reasonable assurance to EPA, it is a less expensive approach to reduce the phosphorous discharges into the Lake and bring it back into compliance with our water quality standards.

Should the Save the Sound petition be as successful as the Lake Champlain suit, the EPA would force a reduction in the nitrogen discharged into the Connecticut River watershed in VT and NH. The Sound petition specifically asks that our VT and NH plants that do not now use sophisticated nitrogen removal technology do so. The required upgrades could be an expensive proposition for STPs in the upper valley. We would face the same dramatic increase in treatment costs faced by those facilities in the Lake Champlain watershed. Although we will face similar costly requirements to reduce nitrogen discharges, we could get the job done using the Vermont Clean Water Act approach by addressing the indirect sources of nitrogen loading by reducing runoff from farms, roadways, development, and other stormwater sources.

Some effective approaches would be to absorb the runoff using natural riparian buffers to slow overland runoff from farm fields and impervious surfaces; to protect wetlands and floodplains as natural high water sponges to stop erosion; to replace roadway culverts and bridges with adequately sized structures. River engineers now recommend we size these structures to handle 1.25 times the bank full stream flow and as our roads run near our streams, lakes, and rivers by controlling the runoff from roads with appropriate swale and ditch management, stormwater settling structures and using best road maintenance practices reduces all discharges.

A serendipitous fact, “What is good for water quality is good for protecting culverts, bridges, and personal property during high water events.” muted concern about the potential extra costs of using roadway and development best management practices to manage stormwater runoff.

So there is the tale of two nutrients. We have two large despoiled watersheds facing the same problem caused by different nutrients, phosphorous in Lake Champlain and nitrogen in the Connecticut River. The good news is that what we know about addressing phosphorous in Lake Champlain will work for nitrogen in the Connecticut River. We do not need to invent a new wheel, the one we have works just fine. Now what we need is to do it and get the job done!

David L. Deen is Upper Valley River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRWC is celebrating over 60 years as a protector of the Connecticut River.