Burlington employs pilot project to address blue-green algae blooms

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Burlington employs pilot project to address blue-green algae blooms

Thu, 09/15/2016 - 6:05am -- Denise Sortor

Vermont Business Magazine On August 26, EcoSolutions, a Vermont-based engineering design/build firm specializing in the application of innovative ecological restoration technologies and use of low impact designs (LID) for stormwater and wastewater projects, deployed a two-part pilot project to explore the feasibility and performance of a new approach in mitigating the impact of excess phosphorus runoff to waterbodies such as Lake Champlain. Phosphorus is one of the primary causes of algae blooms. While many algae blooms are not toxic, some kinds of blue-green algae produce natural toxins that can be released when the algae die. This summer has seen numerous beach closures as a precaution to swimmers.

Lake Champlain has long been challenged by excess phosphorus finding its way into the water from fertilizer and soil erosion in stormwater runoff, wastewater discharge, and agricultural practices. While communities such as Burlington are working hard to ramp up their efforts to address these land-side contributors, solutions for reducing phosphorus runoff from the watershed will take time to fully implement. Burlington is hopeful that the pilot project technology can play a large role in mitigating the frequency of algae blooms in high use areas of the lake in the near term.

“At the end of a summer in which we faced unprecedented algae blooms, we are excited about the potential of this new technology to expand the public’s safety and enjoyment of the lake, and to complement our other lake protection strategies,” said Mayor Miro Weinberger. “While we clearly have a very long way to go as a City and State on this critical issue, this pilot continues Burlington’s long record of stormwater leadership and innovation. We are thankful to Main Street Project Services for funding this pilot and EcoSolutions for its partnership in this effort.”

“We appreciate the concern and frustration expressed by Burlington residents and visitors over beach closures this summer, and we are thrilled to be testing an innovative solution to the challenge of algae blooms in our lake,” said Parks, Recreation & Waterfront Director Jesse Bridges. “We encourage everyone to not only be mindful of changing conditions as our summer season comes to a close, but also to enjoy and advocate for the continued health of one of our most treasured resources.”

“Algae blooms in natural water bodies can have a serious impact on public health and disrupt the balance of the aquatic habitat,” said EcoSolutions CEO David Whitney. “The biological algae control technology gives us the ability to remove phosphorus from our lakes and streams so that it can be reused on our residential/commercial landscapes and our farms. If done correctly, it can immediately address algal blooms in the short term, while also creating a way to re-use a valuable resource, phosphorus, offering long-term protection for our natural resources."

How the new technology works

EcoSolutions uses two techniques to address blue-green algae blooms: the first, a biological process that out-competes algae in freshwater systems, and the second, a system that captures phosphorus and nitrogen, reducing the pollution that contributes to blue-green algae blooms. EcoSolutions began testing the technologies on August 19. The North Beach application will stay in through September or the first blue-green algae bloom. The Boat House wetland will stay in until the middle of October.

The main portion of the EcoSolutions pilot project along the Lake Champlain Waterfront will be a treatment system located on the Northern end of the public portion of North Beach. This will consist of an anchor line that runs approximately 200 feet between buoys at the separation of the beach from the bay and deploys ceramic “media” inoculated with beneficial microbes in clusters to treat algae and remove phosphorus. Inhaling the powder form of the microbes contained within the media is not recommended, however, EcoSolutions mixes the powder form in water and soaks the media discs to inoculate them. Once deployed, the microbes are safe for the public and existing aquatic ecology. The second part of the pilot project will include a floating wetland with attached media located directly in front of the Burlington Boat House at Perkins Pier. The floating wetland will serve as an educational feature, allowing the public to view the technologies and the results up-close.

This pilot project has been funded with an investment from Main Street Project Services, which has made the donation because of its belief that the health of Lake Champlain is vital to our community now and for future generations. Should the pilot demonstrate favorable results, the City will engage in a cost benefit analysis and conversation about an ongoing preventative maintenance program.    

Burlington’s record on Lake Champlain water quality protection

The City currently tests its drinking water weekly to ensure none of the possible toxins that can be present with algae blooms have entered the City water supply. Most importantly, City of Burlington has already taken many steps towards mitigating sources of excess phosphorus and other water quality pollution prior to this year’s release of the EPA and State’s new Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) requirements for Lake Champlain.

The City’s leadership on lake protection issues goes back decades:

In 2009 the City created its first stormwater utility, becoming the second city after South Burlington to create such a utility in the State. The dedicated funding provided by the City’s stormwater user fee has greatly improved our ability to capture sediment, and the phosphorus associated with it, before it reaches the Lake. Funding supports dedicated equipment and operators who clean stormwater catch basins throughout the non-winter months. The City also reviews all projects that disturb more than 400 square feet of land area to ensure that proper best management places are in place to reduce sediment runoff during construction, and that projects which are redeveloping or adding new impervious surface have proper stormwater runoff treatment in place. The stormwater user fee also funds planning and engineering staff who work to plan stormwater improvements throughout the City.

The City’s three wastewater treatment plans consistently remove 95% of the phosphorus from the wastes discharged from homes and businesses. In  the summer of 2014, City staff also began experimenting with different techniques to optimize the amount of phosphorus removal at two of the City’s three plants. Thus far, the results have been extremely positive, and average phosphorus concentrations at their outfalls have been reduced an additional 20%.

Since the beginning of the Weinberger Administration in 2012, the City has substantially expanded its commitment to improving its stormwater system.  In addition to supporting stormwater rate increases needed for programmatic improvements in years past, City Council recently approved the 2017 Fiscal Year Stormwater Budget, which increased stormwater capital funding by over 36% to provide additional funding for stormwater mitigation projects. Examples of this year’s phosphorus reduction projects include substantial stormwater improvements on Grant Street that will capture runoff from significant storm events and allow it to soak in underground instead of entering the City’s sewer system. Later this year, a major erosion mitigation project is planned at the Gazo stormwater outfall, reducing the amount of sediment that eventually reaches the Winooski River and the Lake.

Other City projects include the launch of a substantial City wide Integrated Planning effort (funded by a combination of a State grant, subsidy and Clean Water loan) to examine the City’s overall long-term strategy for meeting all of its Clean Water goals, including phosphorus reductions, combined sewer overflow mitigation, stormwater impairments, and flooding, as well as ongoing participation in regional education and outreach effort in Chittenden County to help inform citizens how they can help reduce stormwater and phosphorus runoff.