Effects of Sediment in Watersheds
Eight years ago, six dogs were exposed to cyanobacteria in Milford Lake, Kansas. Three of them died. Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, can release toxins that are harmful to humans and animals. There are many effects of these toxins, including vomiting, pneumonia, and liver failure.
This blue-green algae frequently blooms in Lake Champlain. Three of Lake Champlain’s beaches were closed last July due to blue-green algae blooms, according to NBC5 news.
Cyanobacteria can be caused by high levels of phosphorus in the water. According to the Lake Champlain Basin Program, 83% of Lake Champlain is above the target level for phosphorus.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said that the largest source of phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain from areas of developed land is back roads with poorly managed roadsides.
Vermont’s Clean Water Act, Act 64, is trying to combat this issue. “What the towns have to do over the next few years is improve their stormwater runoff to try to slow the amount of sediment and chemicals that are hydrologically connected to the rivers,” said East Montpelier Selectboard Member, Gene Troia. “The central issue for us is collecting the sediment that the water carries before the water moves on into the local streams and rivers.”
Patrick McCoy is a landscaper in East Montpelier, and a large part of his work is in repairing driveways. He understands the importance of maintaining a roadway, especially a dirt road. He remembers finishing a driveway just before Hurricane Irene in 2011.
“I went to look at it the next day, and you would never know that Hurricane Irene ever happened there because there was no damage whatsoever,” he said. “It handled an exorbitant amount of water without causing damage, and not causing sediment to get into watersheds.”
Roadside Clearing to Improve Stormwater Runoff
This summer, the East Montpelier Road Foreman, Guthrie Perry, and his crew, installed check dams on Bliss Road, like the one in the image above. These dams are meant to slow stormwater runoff to collect the sediment, and so far they have reduced erosion.
Before they can install these stormwater systems, the road crew must clear the roadside. “We need to, in many cases, clear trees back so we can have this water collection system,” said Troia. Removing trees and brush also improves visibility for drivers.
Perry uses 2 methods to clear the sides of the road: “One involves a man with a chainsaw and a chipper…. The other method is with a roadside mower on a tractor.” Here is a video of the tractor and mower.
Not everyone likes what the equipment does to the side of the roads.
“The machinery that they’ve used to do this is not really designed for neighborhoods,” said Nona Estrin, an East Montpelier resident. “I call it a mangler. It takes the bushes and mangles them…. They come through and these really essential habitats are just mangled on one side.”
Estrin is not alone. According to Vermont Woodland Association, the number one reason people own forestland is for aesthetics. As you can see above, the mower leaves a very messy path.
Perry wants people to wait and see. “Once the snow sets on it for a winter and it gets a chance to start rotting and decaying down” he said, “you come back the next year, and there won’t be a tree there to cut.”
He also brought up safety and efficiency. In the cab of the tractor, “you’re behind almost bulletproof glass,” Perry said. “If you’re out with the chipper and chainsaw and pole saw, that’s 3 people walking around in the road. And having one person up in a piece of equipment able to do virtually the same job seems very justified.”
The Spread of Invasives
Estrin brought up another issue with roadside mowing: “We are now facing an age of invasives. These invasive plants are really causing havoc with farmers,” she said, because the machines are “dragging and dispersing seeds.” She noted that waiting until the invasives go to seed before cutting them is a real problem.
The 2018 East Montpelier Town Plan stated roadside mowing as a problem for spreading invasive species such as wild chervil and wild parsnip, and that mowing earlier can help stop this issue.
“Originally we always went with the rental tractor just in the month of July because we could get it that month,” said Perry, “but it would be nice to mow in June, July, and August, to try to get ahead of the invasives before they could seed.”
The East Montpelier Selectboard motioned to purchase a John Deere tractor and Tiger: Bengal Series Mower during a meeting in February, 2018. Now that they have their own tractor, they will be able to mow on a schedule that will allow them to stay ahead of invasives.
Effects on Animals
Estrin is also concerned about cutting hedgerows that are important for animals. “They’re cutting, basically an edge that has lots and lots of native, wild flowering plants: wild plum, used by grouse, bear, raccoons, flying squirrels, skunks, fisher cats, etc., chokecherry, which are amazingly important for all those animals I just mentioned, another is the flowering dogwood.”
Perry disagrees: “When it comes to larger animals, deer, bear, even domesticated animals like dogs, they can actually see oncoming traffic a little bit better when they’re off the edge of the road, which improves personal safety.”
Estrin did not elevate her concerns above the safety and time benefits of the mower, but she said, “citizens’ opinions are weighed against all the options and there are cases where values inform the decision-making process. I think it is important to just throw in your ideas. They aren’t always going to be used. They aren’t always best, but it is good for a democracy to consider the options, be informed.”