Stormwater team charts path forward

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University of Vermont intern Christina Samela has been working with Colchester town officials to test streams around town, guided by a study done in 2009-10. (Courtesy photo)

One month after the Colchester Selectboard approved the passage of a town-wide stormwater utility, technical services manager Karen Adams is at the helm of the operation, laying groundwork for the tasks ahead.

The enacted utility separated stormwater from its usual portion of the property tax bill, increasing the annual resources for clean water by about $333,000.

The money will allow the town to repair or replace failing drainage, install systems where none exist today and pay for improvements along gravel roads — all falling under the umbrella of clean water, Adams said.

Funds primarily come from tax-exempt properties like St. Michael’s College and Camp Johnson, town manager Dawn Francis told the Sun earlier this year. Those organizations previously did not pay into the total, despite creating stormwater runoff.

The new system also aims to make contributions more equitable, Francis said, by using a property’s estimated contribution to the town’s runoff to determine the fee, rather than its assessed home value.

But while the utility was officially up and running as of July 1, bills won’t go out until January, meaning the additional money to tackle those projects will not be in hand until the next fiscal year.

The year without funding will give Adams a chance to set up a detailed plan for the money’s usage, she said, noting the entire utility budget is dwarfed by the millions of dollars needed to fix every stormwater problem in Colchester.

“Before we can put money at the problem, we need to prioritize,” Adams said. “Our stormwater needs are much greater than what we feel our community can provide right now in funding.”

Previously Colchester’s town planner, Adams has seen the stormwater utility from inception to passage, working extensively with the public works and planning and zoning departments to craft comprehensive clean water funding policies.

Adams, formerly Purinton, noted with a laugh that her recent marriage and name change occurred almost simultaneously with the job change, leading people to wonder where “the other Karen” went.

“I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to keep working on this,” Adams said. “I knew this was going to be a really important position in our community moving forward.”

A major priority for Adams is conducting a townside study of current infrastructure, with a critical eye on neighborhoods that sprouted up in the ’70s and ’80s without a thought to stormwater and the increasing challenges climate change presents.

“We’re seeing more frequent storms, and those have a huge impact on our infrastructure,” Adams said. “They’re designed to handle the most common events, but we’re seeing the most common events being quite substantial.”

Samela runs tests for E. coli, ammonia and optical brighteners. (Courtesy photo)

In the meantime, one stormwater planning project has become a focal point for town intern Christina Samela, a Connecticut native and rising senior studying natural resources at the University of Vermont.

Pulling data from a 2009-10 study, Samela decided to conduct sampling along Smith Hollow and Crooked creeks in Colchester this summer, both flagged in the past as potential problem areas.

In addition to testing for E. coli and ammonia, Samela used cotton pads placed in choice locations to measure the presence of optical brighteners, a chemical used in laundry detergent to keep clothes looking new.

“It’s slow to break down,” Samela said of the chemical. “It’s a good indicator because if that’s present, then probably other things are present, too.”

Though Samela’s internship ends this week, Adams said the project will continue along with regular testing of Colchester’s public beaches.

Community outreach holds a permanent spot in Adams’ schedule, too, she said, especially important after residents opened their property tax bills to find an insert explaining the new stormwater utility.

Adams said some residents have been understandably concerned about future budgets or personal tax increases, but largely appreciative of the pre-rollout research and accommodations for low-income and agricultural properties.

“The extreme care we took in crafting the policies around the utility will show with smooth operation,” Adams said.

It’s a philosophy she also hopes to apply in her new position.

Clean Water Week will kick off later this month, with anecdotes and information on the topic posted on various town platforms, she said. A storm drain painting schedule is also in the works for late next month, designed to get community members involved in education efforts.

“A year or two of thoughtful analysis will really set us up for a successful stormwater future,” Adams said.