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Vermont Towns Worry About Cost Of State Clean Water Regulations For Roads

Howard Weiss-Tisman
West Windsor road foreman Mike Spackman talks about the culvert the town just upgraded. The state's new clean water law requires towns to meet standards and some towns are worried about the costs.

Two years ago, then Gov. Peter Shumlin signed Vermont's most comprehensive clean water law. Now, many of the and a lot of the regulations included in that law are coming into play.
Vermont's new clean water law will require municipalities to take on costly upgrades to their roads that run near rivers and wetlands. For the first time in Vermont's history the Agency of Natural Resources will have oversight over how towns maintain their roads, in an attempt to prevent runoff into the state's rivers and lakes.

The law creates a new permit system that regulates how towns will have to upgrade their culverts and ditches near water. And the regulations are built around a new statewide map that identifies the roads that have to meet the new standards.

Mike Spackman has been taking care of the roads in West Windsor for more than 30 years, and he says he's got a problem with administrators in Montpelier telling him which roads need upgrades.

"I think sometimes we overthink stuff," he says. "And I think if you don't have an issue, you don't need to fix it. They could have done a better job asking towns to do this individually. I think someone just sat somewhere on a desk and said, 'This is within 50-feet of the brook and this needs to be looked at.'"

Department of Environmental Conservation Municipal Roads Program Coordinator Jim Ryan says the road work will come at a cost for Vermont's  towns and cities.

"It is a big change," he says. "We won't sugarcoat things. It's a big change for all of us."

Throughout this whole discussion on how Vermont has to clean up its water, the sticking point always comes down to funding. Ryan says the state's offering some help, but the truth is that someone has to pay and the towns will be expected to shoulder some of the load.

Credit Jim Ryan / DEC
The new regulations were adopted to prevent washouts like the one shown in this photo from Orange. Heavy rains can send phosphorous and other contaminants down hill and into rivers and lakes.

"It will take some significant funding to implement a lot of these practices that DEC's going to require towns to implement," Ryan says. "We have been offering new grant assistance programs. And I think those grant programs will certainly help a lot, but the towns will be asked to do more."

West Windsor administrators looked at the new map, and added up all the red lines along its brooks and streams. And they say the work could cause their tax rate to jump by almost 16 percent, depending on how much grant money they get.

Gwynn Zakov is a municipal policy advocate with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and she says the clean water law was written without really understanding who would pay for the work.

"I think our towns would really like to know what the long term costs are going to be," Zakov says. "If it's not substantially funded by the state, or the federal government these costs pretty much become unfunded mandates on our municipalities."

"It will take some significant funding to implement a lot of these practices.We have been offering new grant assistance programs, but the towns will be asked to do more." — Jim Ryan, Department of Environmental Conservation

And Zakov says there are other problems too.

The standards don't apply to private roads, and Zakov says unregulated runoff from private development will flow down on to town roads, potentially undoing any upgrades that are completed.

Zakov also says  municipal roads contribute less phosphorous run off compared with farming.

Astate report found that about 20 percent of the runoff comes from paved and unpaved roads, and Zakov says the towns are being asked to start their work while a long-range solution to the farming issue is delayed.

Zakov says the towns want a little time, at least until a long-range funding source is identified.

But Conservation Law Foundation Lake Champlain Lakekeeper Rebekah Weber says controlling road runoff is an important part of limiting the pollution in Vermont's water.

"We're in a crisis moment and we can't delay making sure that these practices are implemented on the ground," she says. "The bottom line is we know that we have phosphorous pollution that is coming off of our roadways. And we know that it's causing water quality concerns throughout the state of Vermont. It's not just a Lake Champlain issue. And so we can't ignore that and we can't step back from the necessary regulations to clean up the problem."

The public comment period on the new regulations ended at the end of October and the final permit rules will be issued before the end of this year.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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