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Big Plans, Big Questions On Lake Champlain Cleanup Policies

Taylor Dobbs
VPR File
State officials are planning major new policies to reduce phosphorus pollution into Lake Champlain, but critics say the goals they're trying to meet are impossible.

In a packed ballroom in South Burlington's DoubleTree Hotel, a well-known scientist studying Lake Champlain stood up and told state officials that some of the targets they've set to reduce pollution into the lake simply cannot be reached.

"It's just silly," said Mike Winslow, the staff scientist for the Lake Champlain Committee in an interview. He was talking about the state's target of a 60 percent phosphorus reduction from forests in a section of the southern Champlain watershed.

He wasn't suggesting that the policies required would hurt businesses or be too expensive. He was saying some of the phosphorus reductions in the plan are downright impossible.

"Well for most of the basin they've set a target of a 5 percent reduction from forest load. That might be achievable, it's not going to be easy," he said. "But 60 percent, no. It doesn't matter what you do, it's not going to happen."

State and federal officials held a series of three meetings this week - in St. Albans, South Burlington and Rutland - to inform the public about the new phosphorus reduction targets and the policies the state has planned to meet those targets.

The latest plan to cut phosphorus, announced August 14, came out of a long and intensive process that started with a 2008 lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation. The group charged the prior cleanup plan was too weak and wouldn't do enough to reduce phosphorus pollution, the nutrient that fuels blue-green algae blooms.

The outcome of that case led the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with new pollution targets. At the same time, the state has put together a policy plan for how to reach those goals.

But Winslow and others at the meeting said some of the goals are unrealistic. Another pollution target Winslow cited is the 80 percent reduction in phosphorus runoff from farms in the Missisquoi Basin.

On paper, the state would meet those goals by making farmers implement measures that prevent manure from getting into surface water. Winslow is highly skeptical.

"There's no way we're going to get that with best management practices," he said. "We would have to eliminate probably 75 percent of the farms to get an 80 percent reduction. Just gone. Maybe that's the path we have to take."

Another criticism came from Erik Bailey, the superintendent of the waterworks department in Hinesburg. He says the way lawmakers wrote the state's new water quality law will lead to the kind of sprawl that policymakers in Vermont typically try to avoid.

Bailey said there's a key difference between the new law, which officials are calling the Vermont Clean Water Act, and the federal Clean Water Act passed in the 1970s.

"When the [federal] Clean Water Act happened ... there was this huge pot of federal money that helped build this infrastructure. That's not there. So the municipalities are taking that on themselves." - Erik Bailey, Hinesburg town official

"When the [federal] Clean Water Act happened ... there was this huge pot of federal money that helped build this infrastructure," he said. "That's not there (now). So the municipalities are taking that on themselves. They talk about the state revolving fund. That's a loan."

Bailey fears this lack of funding assistance will put the financial burden of infrastructure investments on local ratepayers, which will drive up the cost of living in population centers across the state.

"If it costs you that much more to live in a growth center than it does to live on a 10-acre parcel on the side of a hill, it's a pretty easy choice where you're going to go," Bailey said. "Are you going to go pay 700 or a thousand dollars a year for a water bill, or are you going to go find your spot out on the hill? So the unintended consequence of the way they're funding this is sprawl, unless they change it."

State officials are putting together a team to work with municipalities to help them plan and find funding for the changes they'll have to implement.

Jonathan Wood, a private forester who attended at the South Burlington meeting, said he has no problem with the idea of improving forestry practices to reduce pollution.

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz, Transportation Secretary Sue Minter, Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross and Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren conferred before a public meeting about new Lake Champlain cleanup targets in South Burlington.

"My problem is the numbers that EPA has put forward are really almost fabricated. I've worked on them pretty extensively and they're wrong," he said. "They're tripling, quadrupling the [phosphorus] outputs that are estimated."

Wood said that by starting with numbers that are artificially high, the percentage of pollution foresters have to cut down is artificially high too.

"So if you have improper data on how much forested land is contributing, when you try to set a target for reduction, the target's wrong," he said. "It isn't going to change the implementation plan. I'm not trying to say we shouldn't do ... I'm saying the numbers there that can be produced by improvements are completely out of the realm of possibility."

Wood is concerned the pollution numbers that he says are artificially high will lead lawmakers and the public to call for phosphorus reduction efforts that won't be as helpful as the data suggest.

Officials said they know the targets are challenging, but that's no reason not to try meeting them.

"I guess I'm not willing to give up before we started," said Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz.

She said that if the targets do turn out to be unreachable with the policies the state plans to roll out, the plan is designed to change when it needs to.

"We'll do a check-in in five years, and we'll see 'Do we need a course correction?'" - Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz

 "We'll do a check-in in five years, and we'll see 'do we need a course correction?' 'Do we need to do more in places that we didn't think we'd have to do as much?'" she said.

But officials also hinted at a number of policies that don't appear in the state's plan to meet the pollution goals, including the possibility of buying out farms that aren't compatible with the state's water quality demands.

"We may be able to identify properties that are not a part of the plan that could be changed in terms of the kind of activities that are on them, or potentially even purchased and removed from agricultural activity or a reduced agriculture activity," said Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross.

Officials mentioned that option alongside the possibility of trying to remove phosphorus once it's already in the water.

Officials didn't say why these policy ideas aren't written into the state's water quality plans, or what other options they're considering to improve the conditions in the lake.

Whatever policies are chosen, Markowitz insists the work has to start now.

"I would encourage you all to stay involved and to not give up before we start," she said, "because that gives the excuse to do nothing, and we can't do nothing."

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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