MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – Algae blooms in Lake Champlain, damaged stream banks that will take years to recover – the third wettest summer on record has made the debate over stormwater more than just a legal fight.

Last week’s decision by the Water Resources Board that has ended up halting construction of a Lowe’s Home Improvement Center in South Burlington comes near the end of a summer when the stormwater issue has been on the ground and in the lakes and streams.

Lowe’s asked the board on Wednesday for a stay of its order so that construction could resume. The Conservation Law Foundation submitted legal papers on Thursday arguing that the board should stick to its guns.

A University of Vermont professor warned that even if all the pollutants flowing into Lake Champlain were stopped today, phosphorus- and nitrogen-laden sediment, largely from farms in the lake’s watershed, could continue to be a problem for years to come.

Breck Bowden, a professor of watershed science and planning at the university, said polluted runoff has been flowing into the lake for decades. It originates in parts of the watershed as distant as Hardwick, Marshfield and Rutland, and often settles on the lake’s bottom.

“The sediment in the lake bottom becomes a vast reservoir for these nutrients,” Bowden said. “It (nitrogen and phosphorus) can keep leaking back out of the sediment for a very long time. … The lesson in all this is that we need to be persistent and vigilant in our management of the runoff.”

Others who track water quality in the state say it’s too soon to say whether this summer’s extraordinary rains will make the stormwater problem being addressed by the Douglas administration and environmental groups measurably worse.

Pete LaFlamme, head of the stormwater section in the Department of Environmental Conservation, said his agency was just starting an annual round of monitoring of streams and wouldn’t have a definitive picture for another month or so. But he said the anecdotal evidence was not good.

“You go out and look at the main streams: the Winooski, the Lamoille. They’re flowing like a cup of coffee,” LaFlamme said, referring to the streams’ muddy color. There are “just millions of tons of sediment being transported down to the lake. That’s what we’re trying to prevent. It’s sad.”

Patrick Berry of the Vermont Natural Resources Council said monitoring teams from his group had been out on the stream banks, but no results from their samples were available yet.

The Water Resources Board found that Lowe’s needed an individual site permit, rather that the general permit it was relying on. As part of getting an individual permit, the developer must show efforts to keep sediment from the construction site running off into nearby streams.

Berry said the issue had taken on a special significance this summer.

“With all the rain we’ve been getting, construction sites like Lowe’s end up sending a lot of sediment off-site,” Berry said.

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