Natural Resources Secretary looks to slow spending on Lake Champlain cleanup

Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore wants to slow lake cleanup spending in the short term.

By Mike Polhamus

Vermont’s top environmental official is calling for the state to spend less money on phosphorus reduction efforts for Lake Champlain.

Julie Moore, the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, wants to significantly reduce the amount Gov. Phil Scott’s administration originally planned to spend on cleanup efforts over the next several years because she says the agencies responsible for mitigating phosphorus pollution do not have a plan for the money.

State Treasurer Beth Pearce said it will cost about $50 million annually to meet federal requirements for phosphorus reduction. The state must spend about $25 million a year, Pearce estimated in January.

Moore wants to reduce state spending on cleanup by roughly $13 million a year. “We’re confident that we can meet our obligations under the [federal mandate] with fewer dollars in the near term.”

Environmental groups object to Moore’s approach, and business and municipal leaders are calling for the establishment of a clean water authority to expedite abatement programs.

The federal Environmental Protection Administration has mandated that the state significantly limit phosphorus runoff. In 2016 the federal regulator imposed limits on how much phosphorus Vermont can release into the lake because the pollution level is causing toxic cyanobacteria blooms in the lake every summer.

Phosphorus from fertilized soil, roads, and wastewater systems has leached into Lake Champlain over many decades. The nutrient feeds toxic blue-green algae blooms that are a threat to public health and have led to the closing of beaches, lowered property values, and last year threatened the Burlington water supply. Blue-green algae exposure has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases.

While wastewater and urban development contribute to phosphorus to the lake, Vermont farmers are the largest source of the pollutant. Studies show that agricultural practices in Vermont contribute more phosphorus to Lake Champlain than all of the communities combined on the New York side of the lake.

Moore isn’t new to the phosphorus cleanup issue. She ran the “Clean and Clear” program under former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas from 2007 to 2011, which environmentalists said failed to make meaningful progress.

She says the idea of holding off on addressing Lake Champlain’s decades-long phosphorus pollution didn’t come from Republican Gov. Scott, despite his preference to avoid raising new revenue to address the problem.

Moore said timing is a big part of the problem. It will take several years of planning for polluters to figure out how to comply with the federal phosphorus limits. It will also take time for the state to determine how best to pay for mitigation efforts.

Moore acknowledges that short-term cuts to cleanup efforts may result in the overall cost being higher. “We acknowledge that costs go up over time, but at the same time it doesn’t do any of us any good to be making unwise and inefficient investments,” she said.

Moore’s recent push to delay funding for cleanup comes as Lake Carmi enters its fourth week of “high alert” conditions caused by toxic blue green algae blooms. Last week’s warm spell triggered algae blooms in many bodies of water around Vermont, prompting warnings and beach closures.

The secretary’s call to delay spending on mitigation efforts alarmed some environmental advocates who say state agencies have been studying for years how to treat Lake Champlain’s phosphorus problem.

“It is really shocking that the administration’s position would be that we can now hold off on spending money,” said Jon Groveman, policy and water program director at Vermont Natural Resources Council. “That’s the reverse of what they’ve been talking about for years — that we need adequate funding, and [that we] need it right away.”

Although Moore says there hasn’t been enough planning, Rebecca Ellis, the deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, says the department has a database of shovel-ready projects that the state could begin spending money on immediately.

Clean water authority
Meanwhile, a working group made up of Scott administration officials, business leaders and others, is seeking to find a long-term funding source for phosphorus abatement. Several years ago, lawmakers placed a surcharge on the property transfer tax that raises about $5 million per year, but have not settled on a long-term funding mechanism.

One member of the working group, St. Albans City Manager Dominic Cloud, has suggested an alternate approach – creating a state clean water authority to raise and administer the money needed to reduce Lake Champlain’s phosphorus pollution.

He envisions such a group governed by a board of up to nine appointees by the governor, the Senate president pro tem, and the House speaker. Cloud suggested that it could be financed with a statewide parcel fee to implement plans already in the works.

His idea drew support from Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, and former ANR deputy secretary Trey Martin.

Cloud said people expect to see improvement in the lake’s water quality, and, “right now Vermonters aren’t seeing that.”

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