By Denise Smith
With the state and the Environmental Protection Agency discussing new pollution limits for Lake Champlain and how to achieve them, the state of the lake and Vermont’s waters in general are once again being hotly debated. Just last week, the Secretary of Agriculture was in St. Albans to consider the possibility of additional regulation for farms with fields identified in 2011 as critical sources of pollution in Missisquoi Bay.
The problem in Lake Champlain, and in most of the surface waters in Vermont, comes from water landing on the ground and moving swiftly, most recently with extreme force, into the rivers and streams, taking with it everything on the ground. My job, and the job of many other extremely dedicated people, is to help ensure that the water that traverses multiple properties and places is as close to clean as possible when it reaches the nearest conduit to Lake Champlain.
When discussing water quality with anyone who lives in Vermont, and especially anyone who lives in the Lake Champlain Basin, we can all agree that clean water is extremely important. Lake Champlain, in particular, is a tremendously valuable asset that provides drinking water for human and animal populations, and financial resources to the state. No one wants a dirty lake, so why does the conversation about how best to protect it deteriorate so quickly?
The simple answer is that because water has no political boundaries, impacts everyone and lands on privately held land, we have to regulate and enforce policies on private properties to ensure that water is not taking so many pollutants with it that it overwhelms the natural ecological system. This means the state and federal governments have to pass laws and enforce the Clean Water Act.
Most recently, Vermont passed the Shoreland Protection Bill, a statewide bill that regulates what people can do along their shorelines on lakes and ponds. This bill impacts anyone who owns waterfront property. It is not as much about water quality as it is beneficial to lakeshore habitat and ensuring better erosion control along shorelines. However, many owners of properties along most of the lakes and ponds were against it because it regulates what they can do on their own land, even though it will help in protecting those lands. One of the most significant reasons for not supporting the bill is that their neighbors, the farmers, were exempt from it.
The stated reason for not including farms in the shoreland bill is that they have other laws that regulate them and their interactions with land and water. The most touted rules are the Accepted Agricultural Practices and the medium (defined as 200+ cows) and the large farm (defined as 700+ cows) permits. How are those rules enforced you might ask? This is where the conversation once again breaks down and leads to extremely difficult dialogs between neighbors, friends and the State of Vermont about how we address reporting or enforcing the laws that deal with the discharges into our lakes and streams that are caused by drops of rain coming out of the sky and landing on our land.
We all need clean water, it should be the most apolitical discussion on the planet. The only right answer is to work toward solutions that stop the input of pollution into our waterways. Many farmers and water quality groups in our watershed have been implementing various practices that are helping, but it is not enough. We are short on funds, political will and enforcement.
The TMDL plan may start to get at it, creating pain for everyone in the watershed, but even then the question of how to pay for it hasn’t been answered, and outside the watershed, legislators are balking at footing the bill.
We all love Lake Champlain and what it represents. We all need clean water to live. We all want clean water for our children. How we get there involves coming up with the right suite of regulations, conservation and stormwater practices and money to implement them, and then we all need to make sure the rules are followed.
Denise Smith has spent most of her life living and working in the Lake Champlain Basin. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Friends of the Northern Lake Champlain.