Restoring Lake Champlain

The deteriorating condition of Vermont’s waterways harms the State’s economy and way of life. Restoring them requires the State to raise sufficient funds and use them efficiently on appropriate cleanup projects and initiatives. In my June column, I explained that, after four years of consideration, the legislature agreed to a dedicated long-term funding source for water cleanup efforts. I now explain how the legislature has addressed implementing, administering, and funding clean water projects.
For years, Vermont has been confronting the growing threat to Lake Champlain from pollution, primarily too much phosphorous. This nutrient stimulates excessive growth of algae in the Lake, which poses a public health hazard and harms recreational uses, aesthetic enjoyment, and the Lake’s wildlife. Phosphorus comes from a variety of sources. It spills into the Lake from farm fields and barnyards, where it is a product of fertilizers such as manure. It also comes from eroding streambanks, stormwater runoff from developed areas including roads and parking lots, stormwater runoff from forested lands, and wastewater discharges.

In 2015, the legislature took a major step in addressing this ongoing problem when it passed Act 64, Vermont’s Clean Water Act. The law was intended to help the State meet its obligations under the federal Clean Water Act, particularly to satisfy restrictions known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The TMDL caps the amount of phosphorous allowed to enter twelve different segments of Lake Champlain.

To meet these caps, Act 64 modifies existing regulatory programs and creates new ones. These programs require entities to obtain permits from the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) or the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets for a variety of activities that may discharge pollutants into the State’s waterways. To obtain a required permit, an entity may have to implement and maintain best management practices such as building a stormwater retention basin, which treats stormwater runoff by emulating the water-treatment provided by natural watersheds.

The legislature recognized that such practices required by regulatory programs would not reduce pollution sufficiently to meet the State’s water quality standards. Voluntary, or “non-regulatory,” projects were needed as well. Thus Act 64 amended the statutory cleanup requirements, requiring non-regulatory reduction strategies. These could include restoring wetlands, reforesting buffers along streams, reducing development in floodplains, and assisting with practical and cost-effective management practices for stormwater control from construction, redevelopment, or expansion of impervious surface that does not require a permit. To encourage nonprofit organizations, landowners, municipalities, and other entities to undertake such projects, the Act established a Vermont Clean Water Fund to provide resources to both required regulatory and voluntary projects.

During the 2019 Session, the legislature determined that oversight of voluntary projects would be improved by using a regional watershed-based implementation system for them. It passed Act 76, which directs ANR to designate “clean water service providers” for each impaired water basin. The designated entities will likely be regional planning commissions, natural resource conservation districts, or local clean water associations. The providers will approve, implement, administer, and oversee clean water projects at the local level when the project is not required under a regulatory program. Act 76 requires ANR to assign a provider for each of the Lake Champlain basins by November 1, 2020. There are six Lake Champlain basins – areas of South Burlington are within either the Winooski River Basin or the Northern Lake Champlain Basin.

To help direct the providers’ oversight, ANR will establish the amount of pollution reduction that each provider will be responsible for achieving. By November 1, 2021, ANR will establish a methodology for determining the cost per unit of pollution reduction for clean water projects in the Lake Champlain basins. This will help the clean water service providers ensure that they are reducing pollution in the most efficient way. They will consider the costs and benefits of proposed projects’ phosphorus reduction as they weigh which projects to fund. The providers will report annually to ANR regarding implementation of clean water projects and compliance with their pollution-reduction goals.

This new service delivery model will be integral to the State meeting its clean water obligations for Lake Champlain.