By Mike Polhamus
A panel of senior Scott administration officials says no new fees or taxes are needed to pay for Lake Champlain cleanup for the next seven years.
The Legislature asked the Act 73 Working Group to find reliable long-term funding for a federally mandated effort to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain.
Instead of fulfilling that legislative charge, the working group — which includes Julie Moore, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and Anson Tebbetts, the secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets — determined that no new taxes or fees are needed through 2024.
Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, pledged during his 2016 campaign that he would not raise new revenues.
Some business leaders worry that toxic cyanobacteria outbreaks in Lake Champlain will harm the state’s tourism economy, especially in light of recent severe blue green algae blooms that closed beaches and Lake Carmi in Franklin County to swimming and other forms of recreation.
Environmentalists say those fears are well-founded.
“Nobody’s going to want to vacation on a green lake,” said Jared Carpenter, a water policy advocate for the Lake Champlain Committee. “There’s $2.5 billion (annually) in tourism that’s being affected. That’s going to hurt Vermont.”
Carpenter and other clean water advocates say they’re disappointed by the working group’s draft report. “This was supposed to be a recommendation for long-term clean water funding and administration, and it’s clearly not,” he said.
Former Water Resources Board chair Jon Groveman, who is now the water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, had a similar assessment. “We don’t think the group did what they were charged to do,” he said.
The cyanobacteria blooms have been caused by phosphorus pollution from farms, stormwater runoff and roads. Vermont’s roughly 1,000 dairy farms are the largest contributor.
State Treasurer Beth Pearce has estimated the cost of cleanup will be $2.3 billion over the next 20 years. The EPA imposed phosphorus limits on Lake Champlain last year. To meet the federal standard, the state must begin curbing pollution from farms, roads and stormwater.
There are funding sources for about $1.1 billion needed for cleanup. The state must find $1.2 billion more over the next 20 years.
In response, lawmakers this year adopted Act 73, which formed a working group made up almost entirely of members of Scott’s cabinet. The statute instructed the group to write “draft legislation to establish equitable and effective long-term funding methods to support clean water efforts in Vermont.”
Instead, the group released a report last week asserting that short-term funding isn’t needed. The report advises that it might be worth hiring a consultant to figure out long-term funding solutions.
The final draft of the report is due Nov. 15. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is taking public comments on the draft through Oct. 31.