Guest Column: Green mountains, blue waters and a better tomorrow

By Julie Moore

To help kick off the first Earth Day nearly a half-century ago, cartoonist Walt Kelly drew a poster of his character Pogo with a litter stick and a burlap sack surveying a garbage-covered Okefenokee Swamp, where he lives. Like the event it boosted, the quote from the drawing — “we have met the enemy and he is us” — has endured and become part of our national conscience.

The phrase, and the truth it represents, is as applicable to the condition of our collectively owned waters as it once was to trash-strewn landscapes. Just as we all share in the benefits of clean water, we all bear responsibility for the condition of our lakes, rivers and ponds. Moreover, we share responsibility for cleaning them up.

Of course, those who contribute more to that pollution should be, and are, responsible for more of the cure. But let’s not take the easy way out and point to overflows from aging sewer systems in some of our towns, or to new big box store parking lots, or to farm fields and say only the owners of those properties are responsible.

We all shop in those stores with their convenient parking lots. We all travel to those downtowns to work or play. We all eat. And when we see murky water running in our streams after a rain event, or algae blooming in our lakes and ponds, we are simply seeing a reflection of our collective decisions and attitudes about the commodities and services we demand.

Because we all bare a responsibility, Vermont has embraced an “all in” philosophy for restoring and maintaining clean water. The question we ask has shifted from who is to blame to what we can do to help. From local road crews to those who are building our homes and businesses, to farmers and within state government itself, that attitude shift — and an unprecedented investment — has already led to remarkable things.

Clean Water Week will take place this year from July 29 to Aug. 4. It is a weeklong celebration of Vermont’s lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. It’s a time to enjoy these treasured places and more importantly, it’s a time to reaffirm our commitment to protecting and restoring them.

There is amazing work taking place all over Vermont, and opportunities for further innovation abound. Our perceptions, policies, tools and tactics all evolve alongside our understanding of what is driving Vermont’s water quality concerns. Examples range from milquetoast to leading edge.

Roads represent an estimated 42 percent of all impervious, or hard, surfaces in Vermont. Reducing runoff and erosion associated with roads is critical to meeting the state’s clean water goals. In the last year alone, more than 100 road-related stormwater projects were completed and resulted in 13 miles of road drainage improvements, 68 road drainage structures installed, and replacement of 109 road drainage and stream culverts.

Announced earlier this year, the Phosphorus Innovation Challenge will find and fund emerging, cost-effective solutions that capture, and ideally reuse, phosphorus that might otherwise be lost from the landscape and pollute our waterways. The challenge was specifically designed to target innovations that can convert manure or other organic wastes to energy, recycled fertilizers or other value-added products. In total, an astounding 27 responses were received from innovators in Vermont and across the country! The proposals are currently being reviewed, with funding awards slated to be made later this summer.

There are nearly 80 Clean Water Week events planned statewide that will showcase the hard work and innovation that our communities and neighbors are engaged in in the name of clean water, as well as citizen science activities that will provide insights into the complex ecosystem of Vermont’s water resources.

Achieving clean water in Vermont is one of the greatest challenges and opportunities of our time, and our ability to drive water quality improvements will be one of the biggest legacies of our generation. Our know-how, complemented by an evolving set of tools, will allow us to solve this problem. But we must remain focused on the goal — clean water — and what each of us can to do help achieve it.

Years from now, I hope people look back and see us as a state full of innovators and individuals who faced an enormous challenge and brought our biggest, brightest and best ideas to tackle the problem. I want them to see the change we, together, accomplished, and to look out over our green landscape of working farms and forests to see a network of miles and miles of blue rivers, streams lakes and ponds.

Julie Moore is secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.