Road commissioner and state worker sound off on Clean Water Act road requirements

As the final version of the Municipal Roads Storm Water General Permit nears completion, relevant parties continue to disagree on the viability of fixing dirt roads to mitigate phosphorus pollution.

The special permit is a condition of Act 64 of 2015, more commonly known as the Clean Water Act.

Plainfield Road Commissioner Bram Towbin has concerns about the requirements that the act imposes on municipalities.

“I think that this approach to get everyone to have a higher road standard is overburdening to understaffed and overwhelmed small towns,” he said. “And I think that it’s purposefully cloaked so that people don’t realize how much extra work it’s going to be until the train has effectively left the station.”

Wikimedia Commons/Stephen Flanders

Towns have until 2021 to bring dirt roads up to the environmental standards targeted by the state.

The current plan by the state consists of about two years of planning and another 16 years of implementation, with the final goal to have Vermont dirt roads brought up to standard so water runoff won’t spread phosphorus.

Towbin called the state’s plan a “cookie-cutter approach.”

“I don’t think it will achieve their goals and it adds to already stressed local government,” he added.

He noted that having the road foremen and commissioners attend extra meetings is not an efficient use of their time. He said if the state really wants to help in a meaningful way, they need to collaborate with towns on defining core problem areas rather than trying to redo huge portions of the state’s roughly 8,000 miles of dirt road.

“I can point to a couple of spots in our municipality where we have a lot of sediment going in and needs to be addressed in a big way,” Towbin said. “And that will give you more bang for the buck and the state is better equipped to do that then we are.”

He suggested a more efficient approach might be to add a 1 percent tax on municipal budgets and to keep local commissioners “out of it.”

“This is an example of public policy that’s politically expedient, doesn’t sold the problem and hurts the smaller players.”

The state considers water runoff from dirt roads to account for 6 percent of phosphorus in Lake Champlain. Towbin said there are probably other sources of phosphorus not getting adequate attention, such as lakeside communities which lack a centralized septic system, and big-box stores with huge impermeable parking lots.

Jim Ryan, of the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Storm Water Program, said a draft of the permit was put out in October, followed by a series of public meetings and 45-day public comment period.

“We’re going through the public comments now and developing a response to the summary, and we’ll be making some changes based on those comments and that will be coming out shortly after the new year,” he said.

The actual permit kicks in on July 31, 2018.

Ryan said for the first two years of the process, the primary task for municipalities will be to do an inventory of their roads, documenting where any water connections are, such as streams and brooks.

“We need to establish what the baseline condition of the roads in each town,” he said. “Especially what we call connected roads, those close to water.”

He said that roughly half of all municipal roads in the state are considered hydrologically connected to some kind of water source.

The next big checkpoint is in 2021, when towns will be required to bring the roads up to the standards targeted by the state. They will have until 2037 to complete the process, so towns are encouraged to come up with a 16-year plan to spread out the work.

Ryan said a lot of towns have been taking advantage of grant funding. The Department of Environmental Conservation has a new grant and aid program for $2.4 million this fiscal year and $2.9 million the next. Also, VTrans has about $3 million in funds via the Better Roads Program. This is all in addition to other federal funds, transportation funds, and stormwater mitigation funds.

Currently, over 85 percent of Vermont communities have already adopted the new road standards voluntarily. Ryan said a lot of this work is things that communities should want for their roads anyway, such as improved crowning and ditches along roads.

“What we’re really talking about is drainage,” he said.

He said these efforts should help keep the water table low and inhibit the occurrence flash floods.

“I think having the road erosion inventory will help them establish a baseline condition of their roads,” he said. “And for improving the drainage of their roads.”

He said the whole thought behind Act 64 is that there is cooperation.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions out there,” he said. “As I said, the permit is not even in place yet and we’re hearing that towns are overburdened already but the permit hasn’t even been finalized yet.

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Stephen Flanders

5 thoughts on “Road commissioner and state worker sound off on Clean Water Act road requirements

  1. According to a 1979 EPA document titled “Analysis of the Sources of Phosphorus in the Environment: Final Report” it appears that a significant source of phosphorus is leaves. I presume that as they get ground into smaller particles by autos and washed into waterways, then phosphate loading can occur in nearby water bodies. I’m not sure why paved residential roads are not considered a problem as landscape companies and home owners often blow leaves onto the pavements where greater volumes of auto traffic are present. It stands to reason that dirt roads are those that are not traveled as often as paved streets in residential neighborhoods. If that reasoning is sound then a significant reduction in phosphate loading from roads can be achieved by changing the habit of blowing leaves onto roads.

    Another source of phosphate is landscape fertilizers, also found in residential neighborhoods. It seems with a higher density of probable fertilizer users in residential neighborhoods than on country roads, then some change of fertilizer use in residential neighborhoods could be achieve more results than can be achieved on country dirt roads.

    While there are other sources of phosphorus in country settings like run-off from farms, it seems this proposed regulation is out of focus and needs to be refocused on suburban neighborhoods.

  2. What is the source of the phosphorus, is it naturally occurring in the soils or is it a component of the winter salting?

  3. I guess I don’t understand how crowning and ditching keeps phosphorus out of our waterways. Doesn’t that more directly deliver this contaminant away from where it started. The road in the above picture seems like a pretty nice dirt road. Albeit a well rutted one in the spring. At least the water that does find its way to the edge of the road is going to have a hard time finding its way very far from the source of the phosphorus. Most likely end up soaking slowly into the woods’ soils adjacent to the road. The powers that be in Montpelier have too much time on their idle hands.

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