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Outstanding Waters Petition

September 2004

The State of Vermont has an obligation to maintain and protect ecologically significant waters.

The State of Vermont has an obligation under the antidegradation policy of the Clean Water Act to ensure that water quality is maintained and protected where “high quality waters constitute an outstanding National resource, such as water of National and State parks and wildlife refuges and waters of exceptional recreational or ecological significance.” 40 CFR 131.12(a)(3).

With this obligation in mind, VNRC and CLF have filed a petition with the Water Resources Board to designate candidate waters within the Green Mountain National Forest as Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW) and Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRW) pursuant to Vermont Water Quality Standards (VWQS) section 1-03(D). Section 1-03 (D) of the VWQS is a subsection of Vermont’s antidegradation policy that provides that the Water Resources Board may designate certain waters as outstanding under state and federal law. When waters are designated, their existing water quality shall, at a minimum, be protected and maintained.

The candidate waters on the Green Mountain National Forest are outstanding water resources.

The candidate waters in the Green Mountain National Forest are some of the most undeveloped waters in the State of Vermont, and they combine to form excellent examples of ecologically intact watersheds. There are no wastewater treatment plants, no industrial point sources of water pollution or other discharges, and no significant agricultural non-point source pollution. Logging, service roads, and trails make up existing land uses in parts of the focus area.

The water bodies represented in the petition are free-flowing. Free-flowing conditions are rare and unique in Vermont. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources reports that hydropower projects impact 307 miles of stream in Vermont, and impoundments created by dams impair an additional 296 miles. The free-flowing conditions of the identified waters contribute to exceptional water quality and ecological values.

Stream monitoring data shows a pattern of high water quality in many of the candidate waters. For example, there is no evidence of nutrient enrichment, excessive sedimentation, high bacterial levels, or toxins in the water bodies represented in this petition. A relatively low level of human development in the watersheds means the selected water bodies do not have water quality impacts typically found in most of Vermont’s water bodies.

The candidate waters serve many important functions including (1) source protection areas for municipal drinking water, (2) habitat for wildlife, including rare and threatened species, (3) rare and irreplaceable natural areas, (4)and valuable fish habitat.

How will Outstanding National Resource Waters need to be managed?

The Clean Water Act’s antidegradation policy requires that water quality be maintained and protected in ONRWs. EPA interprets this to mean that water quality cannot be lowered by new or increased discharges into ONRWs and their tributaries. However, limited activities are allowed that result in temporary and short-term changes in the water quality. Such activities cannot permanently degrade water quality or contribute to water quality lower than that necessary to protect the existing uses in an ONRW.

Why file the petition now?

The Green Mountain National Forest is currently revising its forest plan. It will be important for the Forest Service to consider ORW/ONRW designations during the forest planning process because comprehensive land management decisions are determined at this time. Presumably, it will be another fifteen years before such a comprehensive planning process is undertaken again.

Another reason to file the petition is the Bush administration is flirting with the idea of weakening the Clean Water Act. The administration has considered eliminating protections for isolated wetlands and tributary streams to non-navigable waters of the United States. The ramifications of this type of policy would be of serious concern to isolated waters on the Green Mountain National Forest.