Improving the Quality of State Waters

February 26, 2015

In a normal year, a bill having to do with clean water would be no big deal and scarcely anyone would pay it much attention. This year is different. Lake Champlain in under assault from development and agricultural runoff. Some parts of the lake around Burlington and near the mouth of the Missisquoi River have become so polluted with phosphorus that the water turns slimy green in summer and is highly toxic.

 

Vermont is under pressure from the EPA to clean up the lake, and volunteer efforts will no longer suffice. While farm runoff is frequently blamed, there are many other sources of phosphorus, nitrogen, municipal runoff and other pollutants that must also be addressed.

 

To address EPA mandates, the House Fish, Wildlife & Water Resources Committee voted out H.35, which proposes a number of corrective programs and various revenue sources to fund them. The 10-year cost has been estimated at over $120 million. This is no small expense.

 

The bill is emblematic of much of what is happening in the State House this winter in that it involves a very difficult expensive problem, a complex solution requiring cooperation among state agencies and municipalities on rule making and enforcement, and fierce competition for scarce resources.

 

In developing the bill, the Fish, Wildlife & Water Resources Committee wisely tapped the expertise of Vermont's farmers, the Agency of Agriculture, the Department of Environmental Conservation, municipal public works departments and many others. And in order for the parts of this initiative to work together, there will have to be a number of new rules, each tailored to work for a specific program, and enforcement mechanisms to assure us and the EPA that pollution will be reduced as proposed.

 

A taste of the complexity of H.35 can be found in a list of the bill's components. The list includes working with large and small farms, accepted agricultural practices (AAPs), best management practices (BMPs), water quality training, certification of custom fertilizer applicators, enforcement of water quality requirements, fees for water quality funding, stream alteration for compliance with AAPs, Use Value Appraisal (the Current Use program), basin planning and regional planning, an anti-degradation policy, a stormwater management authority and a stormwater management practices handbook, the VT clean water fund, and a host of various types of permits each of which has a corresponding fee. If that’s not enough, H.35 also includes state assistance for sewage treatment plants, accepted management practices (AMPs) for logging, MS4 ecosystem restoration, and the list goes on.

 

With so many aspects of state government involved, after leaving Fish, Wildlife & Water Resources, the bill will make its way through the Agriculture, Government Operations, Judiciary, Ways & Means, and Appropriations Committees, then repeat the process in the Senate.

 

The Governor's proposal to pay for the bill included hefty fee on farmers' fertilizer and a decrease in Current Use availability for farmers as well as other sources of revenue. While farm runoff is a large contributor to the problem, saddling farmers with so much of the financial burden for the cleanup was more than they could bear. Hence, the Fish, Wildlife & Water Resources Committee proposed using very different revenue sources, namely increasing the rooms, meals and alcohol taxes by an additional ½% and increasing the gasoline tax by 2 cents.

 

If the bill is to pass with sufficient funding to be effective, the Ways & Means Committee will be responsible for raising the money required.  H.35 will make its way through several committees before hitting Ways & Means, and in the meantime, the committee will take vast amounts of testimony about various potential sources of funding. We will have the very difficult task of choosing where the money to clean up Lake Champlain will come from, but like many issues the legislature has to deal with this session, doing nothing about a Lake Champlain clean-up is not an option.

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