Mother Nature's Helper

Jeff Nelson often spends his days "looking at bugs from the bottom of streams"

by Julia Lynam

A desire to work outdoors and follow his investigative instincts brought Jeff Nelson from the Boston area in the mid 1970s to study geology at the University of Vermont. He now owns Pioneer Environmental, a Vergennes firm that focuses on the quality of water resources, particularly ski industry–related issues.

In this corner of the world we are blessed with a plentiful water supply. In most locations, water lies not far beneath the ground and, in most years, an adequate supply of water usually falls from the sky. It's so plentiful that many of us spare little thought for how and where it runs, and what runs into it. It's fascinating, therefore, to dip a toe into the world of a hydrogeologist a person whose professional life is wholly concerned with the management of water.

Jeff Nelson of Pioneer Environmental in Vergennes is just such a person. He's spent many years, starting as a UVM undergraduate, studying and improving the condition of waterways for private companies, municipalities and individual landowners in Vermont. Whenever a development is planned, he explains, whenever a building is extended, whenever pollution is detected, it's vitally important to study and analyze the effects on the water that runs into our streams and rivers, into our lakes and reservoirs.

Nelson's interest in geology was born at high school, when he was particularly attracted to the idea of working outdoors. Another attraction was the appeal, to his investigative instincts, of trying to build up a big picture from limited information. He grew up outside of Boston and came to Vermont for college, "I think it was a good decision," he says. "I came into this field when I studied geology at UVM in the 1970s and one of my professors, Phil Wagner, was a partner in a company of environmental consultants, then known as Wagner, Heindel and Noyes. I joined them from college, and in 1996 I decided to set up my own company in Middlebury."

Nelson initially established a partnership with wildlife biologist Roy Hugie, taking the company's name from Hugie's established Utah operation. Their intention was to work together on many projects, "but Roy became so busy in Utah and I became so busy in Vermont that it didn't work out, so we parted amicably but I kept the name and we still work together sometimes," Nelson says.

The team at Pioneer Environmental is now 13 strong: two hydrologists, two wetland scientists, four staff scientists who are mostly employed in data analysis, a geological mapping specialist and support staff. Three of the Pioneer scientists are out-stationed at the company's satellite office in Montpelier, run by senior aquatic biologist Mary Nealon.

Much of their work focuses on the quality of water resources "looking at bugs from the bottom of streams," Nelson says, explaining that the presence or absence of certain worms and insects in the mud indicates the quality of the water and the degree of pollution.

In his newly renovated office in the former IGA building in Vergennes, Nelson displays a large and intricate map showing the catchment area of Potash Brook, which runs through South Burlington on its way to Lake Champlain. The map illustrates the scope of a study Pioneer undertook in 2002 for the city of South Burlington, addressing major concerns about storm water drainage. "We knew that we had a lot of different items in the catchment area," Nelson explains, "including the interstate, the airport, shopping malls and housing. We looked at where the pollution was coming from, pieced together the evidence and made recommendations about what can be done to clean it up. We were able to identify a handful of areas that disproportionately contribute to the pollution, as well as looking at the instability and erosion of the stream banks."

Stream channel design is an important facet of Pioneer's work, one that has brought in commissions from a number of ski areas around the Notheast. GIS specialist Josh Sky (left) and Eric Hanson, senior hydrogeologist, compare notes.

Juli Beth Hoover, director of planning and zoning for the city of South Burlington, says they hired Nelson and Pioneer to deal with an odd situation when they realized they would be in the middle of a big legal fight over storm water. Hoover had consulted Pioneer when she was director of the Mad River Valley Planning District. "Jeff delivered a lot of bad news to me in those years," she recalls, "so I had a very good idea of his abilities and honesty."

Nelson secured Environmental Protection Agency funding for the project through the Vermont Department of Natural Resources, and organized and oversaw volunteers from a local group, "the friends of Potash Brook," who help with stream reconnaissance.

"Jeff had to walk a very fine line in doing the political legwork with the different state and federal agencies involved as well as with the city," says Hoover. "We really appreciated his help. The study is now complete and continues to be used in the 'storm water wars' that are still raging."

Stream channel design is another important facet of Pioneer's work, and one that has brought in commissions from a number of ski areas. At Stratton Mountain, Pioneer recently dealt with a pond built for snowmaking when the ski area was established in the 1960s. The pond had interrupted a pre-existing stream course and was causing major water quality problems, releasing iron and other metals from the soil. Pioneer designed the removal of the pond and the reinstatement of the stream in a stable channel.

The company is designing a reinstatement of a natural channel for a stream in the parking lot being constructed for a new lodge at Lincoln Peak in the Sugarbush ski area. This project is prompted partially by requirements of state and federal regulations and, says Nelson, out of the owner's strong interest in restoring the quality of water and undoing damage that was done in the past. "The construction of a new hotel offers an appropriate time to look at the natural resources," he adds.

Nelson has built up particular expertise in ski industry water-related projects, including water supplies for snow-making, domestic water, groundwater supplies, the siting of wells, and, crucially, all the testing and analysis required by the permitting process. Although most of his clients are within Vermont, his ski area specialization has attracted clients from out of state, including Loon Mountain and Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire and Hunter Mountain in the Catskills. "Ski areas have a lot of water-related issues!" he exclaims.

With three senior wetland and aquatic biologists on staff, Pioneer is also well placed to undertake wetland mapping, identifying species that indicate the quality of the environment and delineating such areas for developers. Definition of wetlands is very tightly controlled by federal regulations: soil, plants and water are the three main criteria analyzed. Such studies might lead ultimately to the restoration of streams and wetlands, occasionally for individuals who have been required by court order to restore illegally drained wetlands.

Pioneer's recent move to Vergennes has brought Nelson into a close relationship with the small city, and he has accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of the Vergennes Partnership, a coalition of local business people and residents who have worked for many years to promote the revitalization of the city. He's also joined the board of the Vergennes Opera House, a lively and recently renovated performing arts venue. Civic participation is not new to Jeff Nelson, however. A resident of Addison, he is a past chairman of the town's zoning board and a justice of the peace.

"I've lived in Addison since 1992 and I was very Middlebury-focused until we moved the company here," he says, "but we'd run out of space in our original Middlebury location. I'm very impressed with the efforts that have been made over the past 15 years to improve downtown Vergennes."

It was Rep. Connie Huston and her daughter Courtney, a Realtor, who sparked his interest in the former IGA building at the corner of School and Green streets, which had stood empty for about 15 years.

"Jeff had outgrown his facility in Middlebury," says Huston, "and we helped him find the building, which was then owned by a company in New Jersey who sold it to him for $150,000. It was a huge undertaking: at first he couldn't believe how much work it needed.

"When he met with the selectboard, planning commission, neighbors and the business community, everyone welcomed him and told him they'd do everything they could to help," Houston says.

Pioneer Environmental rehabilitated a brick building in Vergennes that had been vacant for 15 years and moved in at the end of April 2003. Joann Woodard (left), the administrative assistant, and Claire Clayman Geer, the office/marketing manager, stand in one of the hallways.

"He's done a fabulous and very quick job with the renovation it was really exciting to the community in Vergennes to see something new happening."

Shelburne architect Francis Sullivan designed the renovation. Retaining the basic appearance of the original brick building, but removing some retail-oriented external features and using 16-paned windows rather than plate glass, they transformed the building in a six-month project that allowed Pioneer Environmental to move into its new quarters at the end of April 2003.

The building is completely occupied, with the space not used by Pioneer leased to the Addison Northwest Supervisory District. "The superintendent's office, which was located outside the downtown area, contacted me about their possible tenancy during the design stage, and so we were able to plan a layout that would meet their needs," says Nelson.

Nelson says he is thrilled to be part of a community that is now so strong and has a vibrant downtown. "I'm also pleased to have been invited to join the Vergennes Partnership. In a downtown setting here in Vermont it's important to have a broad range of business interests represented, not just retail. Professional businesses have certain specific needs, and I'm interested in seeing Vergennes continue to develop as a vibrant professional community, in the same way that Middlebury has. There's a lot of second- and third-floor space available on Main Street that would be ideal for professional offices. Vergennes has a long way to go in this respect."

Like all small-business owners, Nelson constantly strives to balance the administrative demands of the company with the practical work he has enjoyed for 30 years. Although the growth and relocation of Pioneer Environmental have occupied much of his time in recent years, he's still determined to spend a large slice of his working life doing what first attracted him to hydrogeology working outdoors, on site, in the field.

Originally published in January 2004 Business People-Vermont