In Vermont, management of water and water quality is organized on the basis of watersheds. A watershed, or drainage basin, is the land area where rains falls and then flows downhill to a common point. Watersheds can be of any size and they fit inside each other like nesting dolls. Even a puddle has a tiny watershed, if you want to think small. On the opposite end of the scale, all land east of the Rocky Mountains (the Continental Divide) represents only a part of the immense watershed of the Atlantic Ocean.
Water quality protection and restoration activities in Vermont are organized by major watershed. The process is known as ‘Tactical Basin Planning’. When you are trying to manage a lake or pond, it makes sense to consider both the problem in the water body and where that problem originates. To fully solve it, conditions usually need to change upstream before any change can happen in the lake.
Planning at the watershed level allows for more efficient water quality management and can facilitate better solutions. There are currently 17 basins used for water quality management in the state, but this does change occasionally. You can find your basin, its tactical basin plan, and DEC contacts on the VT DEC Tactical Basin Planning page.
What Is a Tactical Basin Plan?
Tactical basin plans are meaty documents. They outline all the water quality management information for each basin and the smaller watersheds within it. That includes the current water quality conditions, identified uses for each water, and the management priorities. Each basin is reviewed and updated on a five year cycle. During this review, the DEC is required by the VT Water Quality Standards and the VT Clean Water Act to evaluate the condition of the basin’s waters, identify waters that may need special attention, and outline management priorities. The resulting document drives funding allocations and project implementation throughout the basin for the next five years.
Management priorities for Vermont waters are outlined in the VT Surface Water Management Strategy (SWMS). If you haven’t looked at this document, you should. Vermont does not manage water quality based solely on pollutants. Instead, we manage to control and reduce the stressors that create those pollutants. The SWMS definition of a stressor is “a phenomenon with quantifiable deleterious effects on surface waters resulting from the delivery of pollutants (or the production of a pollutant within a waterbody) or an increased threat to public health and safety”.
Stressors are a result of activities on the land, though sometimes natural processes can also create stressors (think landslides or fires). Tactical basin plans outline the major stressors for each basin, focusing on the 10 priority stressors identified in SWMS. By managing the activities that create the stressor and release pollutants, we can protect and improve the quality of our lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams.
Basin plans aren’t limited to waters with pollution concerns, however. They also identify the high quality waters in each basin and outline management options that help protect these special places.
Basin planning in Vermont moves on a 5 year cycle. Image from the VT DEC, Water Investment Division.
How Does The Planning Process Work?
Each five year cycle begins with a review of water quality in the basin. This takes about a year to complete. The DEC watershed planners gather all available water-related data for the basin. This includes data collected by state staff for rivers and streams, lakes and ponds, wetlands, fisheries, wastewater, and storm water. Planners also reach out to municipalities and conservation groups for any data they may have collected about their local water quality. For lakes and ponds, the VT Lakes Scorecard is an important source of information for basin planning.
The next step, assessment of the data, helps to identify any new water quality concerns that may have developed during the last planning cycle. Incorporating this new information, the planners review all water quality issues in the basin and identify priority areas for the next five year cycle. Management recommendations are then developed for the priority areas. These can be very specific, such as stabilizing a specific length of shoreline or aspirational goals like having 10% of lake shoreline owners participate in Lake Wise. General management goals are also developed for the basin and summarized into the plan. Successfully completed projects may also becalled out through the basin planning process.
Once management recommendations and strategies have been identified by the DEC, planners reach out for public input. They hold local meetings to discuss the draft Basin Plan, contact local partners for their thoughts, and make presentations on the updated management goals. Water quality management touches on all aspects of land use, so state staff in other departments are also part of this review and feedback process.
Finally, the plan development and the public review/comment period take about a year to complete. Basin planners then incorporate any changes to the draft document and finalize it. The management plan then becomes the guiding document for water protection and restoration activities in the basin. Plan priorities guide how restoration funding will be allocated, where water quality monitoring occurs, and where other state resources may be deployed.
VT’s Tactical Planning Basins used in water management planning activities. Image from VT DEC, Water Investment Division.
How Can I Use Tactical Basin Plans To Help My Lake?
- Know your current water quality: Basin Plans are a good way to find out about water quality in your watershed – waters that are in great shape, waters that are showing signs of degradation, and waters that have significant degradation. Basin Plans help you understand the condition of waters located upstream, which is important as you consider the overall health of your lake now and in the future. If you know of a significant water quality issue that is not mentioned in the Plan, contact your Basin planner to get it on their radar. If you don’t know your Basin planner already, it’s time to introduce yourself and your organization. If your lake doesn’t have a lay monitor, consider how you might get involved in that program. Data is so important in water quality management and the lay monitoring program is a good way to get basic water quality data for your lake.
- Find out what projects are planned or underway in your area: Major projects are briefly reviewed in the text of the Plan. All projects are summarized in the Implementation Table. The Table shows where the funding will go and which projects will get underway in the next five years. This includes work by state staff as well as watershed partners. If your key projects are not listed in the Implementation Table, they are not likely to get attention (or any funding) from the state any time soon. If you have ideas about projects that should be in the Table, discuss it with your watershed planner. They are always looking for new opportunities.
- Get to know other water quality advocates: Most lake associations in Vermont are small. It can be hard to get the public attention needed to get a project underway. Each Basin Plan includes a list of the active partners in the watershed. Reach out and get to know them. Together, your organizations may be able to make better progress in addressing joint concerns.
- Be involved in the planning process: Basin planners try to reach as many people as possible during plan development and the public comment period. Be a partner in the process. Help build new priorities or identify implementation projects. Set up public meetings to discuss the draft plan. Help build support for specific management goals with town management. Write op-eds and articles that will help your neighbors understand how these projects benefit them.
- Use the Clean Water Portal to keep on top of activity in your watershed: The Portal provides access to deeper information about management activities across the state. Learn where clean water dollars are being spent in your basin with the Clean Water Dashboard. See a full list of projects planned for your basin using the Watershed Projects Database Search. Use the Funding Opportunities Tool to see how you might secure funding to reach your water quality goals.