Two years ago, Colchester created a stormwater utility to focus funding and efforts to manage stormwater flowing into Malletts Bay and its tributaries. Stormwater carries pollutants into Lake Champlain, including phosphorous and other chemicals.
On Tuesday, the town will learn the results of the utility’s first major undertaking – a look underground at the pipes which carry stormwater.
The utility, which is the main vehicle for meeting requirements under the town’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit, is also launching a new program to help homeowners manage stormwater on their property and has been involved in educating students in Colchester’s schools about stormwater.
The town assessed 21.4 miles of pipes at a cost of $160,000 and was 80 percent grant-funded, while the 20 percent local match was taken out of the stormwater utility fee fund. A zoom camera was used to inspect each pipe, supplying information on structural condition and whether or not the pipes need to be replaced.
As the assessment comes to a close, the town’s next step will be discerning what kind of work lies ahead. “We will present on the condition assessment and go from there—figure out what’s next on the pipeline,” said Karen Adams, Technical Services Manager and Stormwater Director at Colchester Public Works. “If you will,” she laughed softly—a quality water pun.
“We want to see, does it still have useful life?” said Adams. Many of the pipes were put in place during the 50’s and 60’s and are made of metal, meaning many are nearing the end of their lives. Plastic piping, popularized in the 80’s, is more weather-flexible and lasts longer than metal.
“One of the challenges is that we’re heavily invested in the current infrastructure,” said Adams, on whether it’s possible to replace the metal system with plastic. “We have to create something that works together with the current system; package things together.”
“Since the pipes are under roads,” said Adams, “we want to be proactive—not just responding in emergency situations.”
She and Public Works Director Bryan Osborne were pleasantly surprised at the results from the footage, noting that while some of the pipes require light maintenance, only a few needed an emergency fix.
“This is the first look inside the pipes since installation,” said Osborne. Navigating between the old and new systems is about “thinking creatively and being opportunistic,” he said.
The current plan is to assess conditions of stormwater management systems, prepare a five year capital plan and budget, and then re-video the pipes in five years.
Education and Outreach
Another project in the works is the town’s partnership with a residential retrofit program called the Blue Stormwater Certificate program. According to the town website, the program “helps residents identify projects that are appropriate for reducing the impact of stormwater runoff on your property.”
After implementing projects like a rain garden, a dry well system, or a gutter downspout, residents become eligible for a credit of up to $200 that goes towards their annual stormwater fee.
In 2017, the town adopted a new stormwater utility system to better address water quality in the town. This changed the program from property tax funded to a per-parcel fee, which is the same for every residential property-owner and varies according to size for commercial properties. Since many large properties don’t pay property taxes, they were exempt from contributing to stormwater management funds in the previous system, despite contributing largely to stormwater and phosphorus pollution. The new stormwater utility bypasses that loophole and enhances the amount of funds available for water quality management. According to Osbourne, the changes have brought in an extra $300,000 from large, commercial properties that were previously exempt.
“If we can have folks manage their stormwater contribution on their own, we are free to put our resources to other projects and more ways to manage stormwater efficiently,” Osborne said.
Commercial property owners are not eligible to partake in the Blue program, but they can qualify for tax credits. “If they have a financial rebate, they’re more inclined to implement practices that alleviate waste and stormwater on their own,” said Adams.
The Blue program started out with a maximum of 20 applicants, but Adams said they’ve seen at least 25 interested homeowners. “We’re currently looking for ways to expand the program,” said Adams.
The evaluation includes a Blue representative going to the property, and talking to the homeowner about their property’s place in the watershed—“Everything from flooding, erosion, if they use fertilizer with phosphorous, to where they wash their car,” said Adams. “We’re lucky that a lot of our folks are in tune with stormwater. A lot of people already have a rain garden, a rain barrel, a swale, etc.”
Colchester resident Chris Poplawski was one of the first to sign up for Blue. “I’ve learned a couple of things that I didn’t know but for the most part, my property is in really good condition,” he said.
Poplawski has a small rain garden already but some of the things that the Blue representative suggested were not to use any fertilizer, and to let the grass grow over three inches. “This helps grass grow in dry spells, and the roots go down deeper,” said Poplawski, which helps to soak up phosphorous.
Poplawski’s knowledge of stormwater has accumulated over time and through experience working for Burlington Public Works, but he signed up because he wanted to know more. “We have a beach that we swim in and we’d like see it as clean as possible; try to leave the resource for future generations,” he said.
A rain garden is one of many ways that residents can manage their own stormwater output, instead of funneling phosphorus, fertilizer, oil, feces, and other pollutants into Lake Champlain. But not all stormwater can be contained in a garden. Other solutions for managing stormwater include rain barrels, swales or berms, and phosphorus-free fertilizer.
The Colchester Public Works offices have a rain garden of their own, in a space where the ground naturally slopes to collect runoff. Adams said she eats her lunch in the garden when it’s sunny outside.
Part of the town’s MS4 permit requires public outreach and education. “Blue is also a great way to educate people,” said Adams.
Adams and Osborne are also looking to the future generations. “When we first started, the initial target audience was the homeowner—but that has evolved,” said Adams.
Osborne hopes to get to a place where stormwater quality is as commonplace as recycling. “Kids recognize that symbol, they know what that means,” he said.
The town is also part of Rethink Runoff, a regional group of nine communities that all have MS4 permits, including University of Vermont and VTrans. “Nine times the budget, nine times the outreach,” said Adams. The group does surveys, ads, and outreach to schools.
One of the ways in which the town reaches out to young people is through tax credits to schools if they teach a water quality curriculum.
Last year, Adams went on a field trip with some students from Colchester High School to stencil water quality symbols at different storm management systems around town. Stencils featured Champ, the well-loved lake monster, and the words, “Drains to Champlain.”