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Slayton: Champlain Cleanup

Summers when I was a boy, we’d sometimes go to visit my uncle, who had a small farm on the shores of Lake Champlain. Occasionally we’d take his old rowboat and row ourselves out to a drop-off, where the water suddenly went to more than 10 feet deep. There, you could peer down and see weeds and sand on the lake bottom. It was that clear.

I went back recently and waded out into the lake near that same spot. And standing in water just above my knees, it was so murky, I couldn’t see my feet.

Lake Champlain’s water quality isn’t getting any better. In many places, it’s getting worse. At St. Albans Bay and elsewhere, there’s so much pollution in the water that algae blooms are now common, and beaches are routinely closed.

This has caused property values and tourist income to decline — drastically in some places. Because it’s getting worse, tourists, fishermen, and others are now going elsewhere.

Two years ago, the Vermont Legislature passed a clean water act, a law that aimed to turn these disturbing trends around. The Legislature then created a task force charged with finding a long-term way to pay for the cleanup.

That task force just made its draft report, and it failed to identify any such funding for cleaning up the lake. Instead its members called for capital bonding to patch through until a longer-term source of money for the cleanup could be identified.

Now, maybe I’m being cynical, but this sounds to me like the same old song we’ve heard before: There’s no money. It can’t be done now. Just wait.

But patching through and waiting isn’t good enough. And the simple fact is, we know what’s causing the problem, and we know that the way to raise the money is through broad-based user fees — a tax on polluters. Because when it comes to clean water, that’s all of us.

It would take real political courage to institute a new fee system in Vermont.

But until we confront this terrible situation head-on and raise the money needed to fix it, Lake Champlain and other polluted waters will continue to deteriorate. And that would not be just an economic disaster for Vermont. It would be an ecological and moral disaster for this state as well.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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