MONTPELIER — Despite Vermont's pristine image, it shares a problem with other places around the country: sewage treatment plants that overflow into rivers and lakes after heavy rains or plant malfunctions.
It may be an intractable problem for the foreseeable future. Two senior state environmental officials said this past week it would cost more than $120 million to separate the sewage and storm water management systems in the 18 cities and towns where they are combined. That's money the state doesn't have.
Systems built in the 1970s and early 1980s send huge volumes of runoff through sewage collection systems, with many actually designed to release excess flow to keep it from backing up into homes and businesses.
But now a lawmaker from Vergennes — a city on the western side of Vermont that has seen more than its share of storm-triggered sewage spills — is pushing quicker public notification when such events occur.
"Vermonters want to know, not three days after the event, that maybe it wasn't a good day to go swimming," Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said in an interview. The bill would call for local officials to send the information to the state within four hours of discovering an overflow.
Pete LaFlamme, watershed program director with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said at least partially untreated wastewater spilled 65 times in the 12 months ending last June in Vermont. That number represents both storm-related events and other system malfunctions.
Lanpher recalled a vacation two summers ago on the Lake Champlain shore in Addison when her husband waded knee-deep in the water each time he launched his kayak. "By day four, he had the swimmer's itch from just above the knee down." They learned later the water had been contaminated, she said.
Currently there's no time limit in Vermont law for municipalities to report sewage spills to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, though once the state gets the information, it is supposed to post it to the department's website within 24 hours. The legislation, House Bill 674, would require public notification within four hours. Spills occurring at night would have to be reported by 10 a.m. the next day.
Even that's not quick enough for some clean-water advocates.
James Ehlers, who leads the group Lake Champlain International, said this past week that there's a phone app that can provide sports scores minutes after the conclusion of a game.
"I can find out immediately when the Red Sox lose (on) my phone. I should be able to find out when there's a public health threat to my family," he said.
Karen Horn, lobbyist for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said a four-hour notification requirement would be "a real problem" for local wastewater treatment operators. One issue: Reports to the state usually tell how large the spill was; that's often not known right away, she said.
Rebecca Ellis, a senior lawyer at the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the agency was trying to strike a balance between those two views in its support for the four-hour notification window.