Clean water funding cannot wait

by David Mears

Vermonters depend upon clean water for our prosperity and health. Yet when it comes to investing in clean water, the state of Vermont appears headed towards abandoning recent progress and returning to a failed strategy of kicking the can down the road.

Based on years of careful research, we now know how to return our streams, rivers, ponds and lakes to full health. The solutions to clean water are not rocket science. We know that a primary set of strategies for reducing pollution rely upon slowing down rainwater runoff and snowmelt so that it can seep into the ground instead of washing pollutants off of our developed land, or eroding soil from farm fields, forests, stream banks and roads, and into our waterways.

What we lack is sufficient funding to implement these strategies. Vermonters were expecting a clear funding proposal to issue this fall. Recent pronouncements from state leaders suggest, however, that they are not ready to offer such a proposal and instead are suggesting yet another study – risking a loss of the momentum established over the past decade. It need not be so.

Past state leaders have made clean water funding a priority for well over a decade. Gov. Jim Douglas established a program of coordinated federal and state funding called the Clean and Clear program in 2003. In the next administration, in response to evidence that the state of Vermont was not making sufficient progress, Gov. Peter Shumlin tasked his cabinet with building on the foundation laid by the Clean and Clear program and they delivered, with the broad, bipartisan support of the Legislature.

After an intensive multi-year process involving farmers, developers, landowners, industry, municipalities and citizens across the state, the Vermont General Assembly passed a far-reaching new law to protect clean water in 2015. In passing this new law, known as Vermont’s Clean Water Act (also referred to as Act 64), Vermont’s leadership recognized the need for a long-term, stable source of state funding and set the state on a course to establish a new funding program.

The reasons for establishing a stable, long-term source of clean water funding are compelling and easy to understand. Businesses, landowners, farmers and government officials at the federal, state and local level need to know that funding will be available to support their own planning efforts and long-term investments. A stable source of state funding, if applied strategically, will catalyze and leverage other investments by federal agencies, municipal governments, and the private sector. The state cannot possibly fund all of the costs of clean water, but can play a critical role in incentivizing and supporting the broader set of needed investments if it comes to the table with meaningful resources.

Further, long-term state funding gives the state of Vermont control of its own destiny. In the absence of a strong state role, Vermonters are defaulting to the federal government. The federal government is too disconnected from the unique needs of our rural state, a state that depends upon clean water for its prosperity and quality of life, to design the type of Vermont-scale solutions that we know are needed. Making this problem worse, current federal leaders appear to be turning their backs on the need to invest in clean water, making the need for state leadership all the more critical.

The alternative to establishing a new long-term source of state clean water funding is protracted conflict and delay in implementing necessary solutions. We know from past experience that a failure of state leadership means that we are abandoning our cities and towns, businesses and farmers to litigation and regulatory enforcement actions. We have seen the results of this approach in the increasing levels of nutrients and sediment in our state’s waters, from the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain.

While the historic record is spotted with highly publicized conflicts that have moved us in the direction of increased clean water investments, the cost has been great and the results uncertain. We have developed a habit of conflict that has extended over five decades without adequate progress. If we are to move to a more strategic use of our limited public and private funds, the state of Vermont must play a leadership role in building the partnerships necessary to address the complex challenge of restoring our state’s waters. The state cannot play that role without a significant and stable source of state funds.

Instead of providing specific proposals, however, the working group tasked by the Legislature with the obligation of recommending a funding source released a draft report that does not offer specific recommendations for raising new revenue but instead suggests that the Legislature rely upon another year of temporary funding sources. The draft report demonstrates a lack of understanding of the need for immediate action and is at odds with the positive momentum generated by the broad political support for clean water. By kicking the can further down the road, the report’s authors and our state elected and appointed officials risk once again avoiding the need to make the difficult yet unavoidable decision to establish a fair, effective and predictable source of long-term funding for clean water.

David Mears, of Montpelier, is associate dean of environmental programs at Vermont Law School and former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. This commentary originally ran on

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