Lake Champlain Cleanup

This past Wednesday both the House and the Senate met in a “joint caucus of the whole” to listen to speakers address one of the most pressing issues before the legislature this session: cleanup of Vermont’s water. As the President of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce emphasized, what is at stake is the Vermont Brand. In competing to attract and grow businesses, Vermont’s advantage is not in providing tax incentives, a deep work force, or an inexpensive cost of living. Rather, the State is blessed with natural resources including clean air and water, recreational opportunities, and a socially responsible population that is connected to the environment. A polluted Lake Champlain with algae blooms and unswimmable waters tarnishes the Vermont Brand, providing less incentive for businesses to move here or visitors to spend their leisure dollars here.

Other speakers explained that if we do not do something about the phosphorous pollutants streaming into the lake, the Environmental Protection Agency will step in with its blunt cleanup tools. Unlike the state, the EPA does not have authority to address pollution from nonpoint sources such as farms or impervious surfaces that contribute stormwater runoff. Rather, it can only tighten restrictions on wastewater treatment plants, which would have high costs for merely a slight decrease in pollution

State agencies, the legislature, and nongovernmental organizations have been studying the problem for years. And as they have studied, the State’s waters have become more polluted. It has taken years to get to the point of water degradation that we now face, and we learned that it will take years for the waters to become clean again. Governor Shumlin reiterated this point that other speakers made – Now is the time to take vigorous action.

That call for action is finding its voice in H.35, which this week was passed out of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee and will now be taken up by the Agriculture and Forest Products Committee. (House Fish & Wildlife Sends Out Tough Water Quality Bill, VTDigger).  The bill includes multiple provisions related to the remediation and preservation of the waters of Vermont. It requires all land use sectors to improve practices and to participate in providing resources to fund and finance a long term sustained remediation effort.

For example, the bill addresses agriculture practices, which contribute around 40% of the phosphorous polluting the state’s waters. It requires the owners/operators of small farms to certify that they are in compliance with Accepted Agricultural Practices (“AAP”), which are standards that farms must follow to reduce pollutants flowing into state waters. Such standards apply to storage of manure and fertilizers, animal holding areas, building locations relative to surface waters, vegetative buffers along adjacent surface waters, exclusion of livestock from surface waters, and more. Owners/operators of regulated farms will have to participate in water quality training as a condition of their permit or certification. Those who spread manure on farmlands will also need to be trained and certified. Finally, the enforcement provisions with regard to agriculture and water quality will be strengthened. Prolonged noncompliance with AAPs or egregious violations may result in permit or certification revocation, fines, the removal of some livestock, or the loss of current use benefits.

The bill also sets forth requirements for the management of stormwater, which is rain that runs off impervious surfaces such as rooftops, paved streets, driveways, highways, parking lots, packed gravel roads, and other hard surfaces. The bill would require all existing and new development to implement and maintain best management practices for controlling stormwater. As was recently reported in the Vermont League of Cities and Towns Weekly Legislative Report, among the roles envisioned by state policymakers and touched upon in H.35, “local governments will have to put in place practices to eliminate stormwater runoff from roads and impervious surfaces; protect rivers and streams from erosion; enact regulations to ensure that development occurs outside the floodplain, flood way, and river corridors; retrofit downtowns and urban centers to allow stormwater runoff to infiltrate the soil before it reaches the surface waters of the state; upgrade wastewater treatment facilities to remove more and more phosphorus from discharges; address combined sewer overflows; sweep streets; educate the public; and conform municipal plans to tactical basin plans.” Not all of these actions are necessarily included in H.35, but this provides a thorough list of what is and will be done to address the contribution of stormwater runoff and wastewater effluent to the water pollution problem.

South Burlington has already taken significant steps to address the city’s contribution to pollutants entering Lake Champlain, mainly by way of stormwater runoff. For over a decade, South Burlington has been in the business of stormwater management through its creation and continuation of the South Burlington Stormwater Utility. The Utility upgrades and implements stormwater treatment measures designed to improve water quality and water quantity control. Among other activities, it has upgraded the city’s stormwater infrastructure such as culverts, storm drains, and stormwater retention ponds, and has cleaned streets and storm drains. In the Laurel Hill neighborhood in District 7-1, the Utility installed four large underground storage tanks to detain water during large storms, which has reduced flooding. It is also working with the Stonehedge community to improve stormwater treatment and assisted in installing rain gardens in Queen City Park to reduce impacts from sediment and nutrient wash-off.

The Utility collects fees from property owners based on the extent of impervious surfaces on the properties. To date, South Burlington has spent over $13 million on stormwater management and over the next 20 years expects to spend upwards of $40 million more on capital improvement projects to comply with stormwater restrictions.

Tom DiPietro, South Burlington’s Deputy Director of Public Works, provided input to and testified before the Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee regarding these experiences as they relate to H.35.  He emphasized that the legislation is an important step in the cleanup of the state’s water, but that legislators should not take away funding from local communities to use at the state level because that would hamper local efforts to improve water quality. It remains to be seen whether final legislation will incorporate that advice, as the funding sources for the water improvement efforts remain unresolved. Such sources may include an impervious surface per parcel fee, a fertilizer tax (maybe just on non-agricultural goods), and/or rooms or meals tax increase.

I will follow the bill’s progress and will remain optimistic that legislation will be enacted this session to start the long process of cleaning the waters of Vermont, including the crown jewel of the state, Lake Champlain.