UVM, S. Burlington Join Forces to Rein in Water Woes | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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UVM, S. Burlington Join Forces to Rein in Water Woes

Local Matters


Published October 18, 2006 at 2:36 p.m.

SOUTH BURLINGTON - Hundreds, if not thousands, of South Burlington homes are out of compliance with Vermont's stormwater-management laws, and city officials and residents have teamed up with experts from the University of Vermont to find innovative solutions to clean up their creeks, dry out their basements and ease their legal headaches.

South Burlington is considered "ground zero" for stormwater problems in Vermont, according to Juli Beth Hinds, director of the city's Department of Planning and Zoning. More than 3000 South Burlington homes lie in the five impaired watersheds running through the city, Hinds points out. Some residents also face problems with seasonal flooding in their basements.

These problems don't just affect residents. The state is under pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. About two-thirds of the pollution that ends up in Vermont's lakes, rivers and streams is the result of untreated runoff, which carries sediment, lawn chemicals, pesticides, oil and grease from vehicles, animal waste and other contaminants.

Currently, Hinds says, the most acute stormwater problems can be found in the Butler Farms and Oak Creek Village subdivisions, where 253 households are facing a September 2007 deadline to renew their long-expired stormwater permits. If the permits aren't renewed, homeowners could have trouble selling their houses - or at least face complications that could drive down real-estate values.

Though experts say it's unlikely the legislature would allow all transfers of property in South Burlington to grind to a halt, some of the proposed solutions to the stormwater woes won't come cheaply. One proposal, which calls for the construction of a large stormwater retention pond at the end of the neighborhood, or several medium-sized ponds, could cost residents at least $5000 per household. This solution would likely address the problems of poor water quality in the watershed, though it wouldn't necessarily fix the problems of leaky basements.

To address the problem, South Burlington has partnered with Breck Bowden, a UVM professor of watershed science and planning, who runs a federally funded project known as RAN, or "Redesigning the American Neighborhood." The goal of RAN, Bowden explains, is to both assess the water quality in the Potash Brook Watershed and to help South Burlington residents identify all their stormwater-remedy options.

For example, Bowden has suggested managing the water closer to its source using low-impact methods such as rain barrels, rain gardens and specially designed wetlands. These methods capture stormwater and sediment runoff at the household level, reducing and perhaps even eliminating the need for larger and costlier infrastructure improvements.

It's still unknown how effective these lower-impact methods would be at cleaning up South Burlington's watersheds, Bowden admits. And, there's no guarantee that the state will sign off on these solutions. However, similar methods to deal with localized flooding have been adopted in Chicago, where residents there can purchase rain barrels from the city for as little as $20.

It's also unclear which solution, or combination of solutions, the residents of Butler Farms and Oak Creek Village would prefer. While other neighborhoods in South Burlington have embraced the concept of low-impact stormwater management, others may balk at the idea of altering the traditional suburban landscape. "We've got a lot of people who really like their big, green lawns," Hinds says. "And, when you get into individual aesthetics, you're really getting people where they live."

Ultimately, the decision will be left to the residents themselves - and that presents problems of its own. Unlike other subdivisions and condo communities in South Burlington, Butler Farms and Oak Creek have no neighborhood associations. UVM, the city and residents have formed a Stormwater Study Group to evaluate all the options and conduct a neighborhood survey to gauge neighbors' preferences. In the next few weeks the residents will be presented with various options and asked to choose which ones they think best hold water.