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Skimmin' the Stormwater Surface


Published June 27, 2008 at 11:58 a.m.

It sure has rained a lot lately in Burlington. But where, you ask, does it all go? Into 2000 metal grates is where — 800 of which drain directly into Lake Champlain. That was just one of the nuggets of info I picked up on Tuesday night at planning commission meeting at City Hall, courtesy of two reps from the city's stormwater task force.

Created in January 2007, the force has lately been chatting with Neighborhood Planning Assemblies and the city council's budget task force about how Burlington can better manage its stormwater. Stormwater isn't a new concern — Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources got Environmental Protection Agency authorization to implement a statewide s-water permitting program back in 2000. But it's still important, according a recent report given by city officials to the city council's budget task force.

Here's how runoff works, roughly speaking: When it rains, and droplets can't seep into the ground, that causes erosion. And, since stormwater collects pollutants such as oil and phosphorus on its way to the lake, runoff has adverse effects on Lake Champlain. That, in turn, spells trouble for such nearby aqueous bodies as the Winooski River and the Englesby Brook, not to mention all the fishies and humans who don't like swimming in icky-ness.

(Lake Champlain, by the way, may not be doing so hot, according to a January report released by ANR. The federal Environmental Protection Agency seems to agree.)

Burlington, which has 100 miles of pipes for processing sewage and s-water, has existing codes related to stormwater management. But they aren't up to date, the task force reported on Tuesday. Besides, said the force, the city should double the amount of money it invests annually in s-water management, from $300,000 to $800,000, and it should start imposing a tax on "impervious surfaces" — i.e., blacktop. The impervious-surface tax would run about $3 or $4 per 1000 square feet, per month. South Burlington, the only other Vermont town that levies a similar tax, charges $4.50, according to Scott Gustin, a senior planner at Burlington's department of planning and zoning.

And then there's the tiresome matter of making people actually obey the law. "Enforcement of this is pretty lax," Gustin told the commission on Tuesday evening. But if Burlington's city council approves the proposed changes, he suggested, "there would be inspections regardless." The force will present to the council sometime in August, Gustin told me yesterday morning.

At one point during Tuesday's meeting, the task force's powerpoint presentation displayed an unsightly image of brown sediment bubbling up into an otherwise blue Burlington Bay. Some of the members of the planning commission looked up from the brownies and grapes they had been munching on. "Maybe it wasn't such a good idea,"  said the commission chair, "for us to have food."