December 13, 2017

Clean water group punts on long-term funding

Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore is chair of the working group that looked for a long-term funding source for pollution control efforts. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

Mike Polhamus

For VTDigger

A working group that was supposed to find long-term funding to stem Vermont’s water pollution says the state can put off raising money — in part because nobody knows yet how to make use of it.

When new funding is warranted, the group says, the best mechanism might be a per-parcel fee. That suggestion is the closest the group came to fulfilling its mandate to recommend legislation.

“The Act 73 Working Group found that existing revenues are generally adequate to address clean water needs through (fiscal year 2021),” says the final draft of the report the group delivered Wednesday, the day it was due.

State Treasurer Beth Pearce has estimated it will cost Vermonters $1.3 billion over 20 years to meet federal water quality standards in Lake Champlain alone. Last year ,she said the state could meet its statutory clean-water obligations through 2019 without new fees or taxes. But she said it’s imperative to have a permanent, long-term funding source in place by then.

The working group, created this year under legislation called Act 73 to find such a source, goes further and recommends no new revenue through 2021.

It’s not that the need for long-term funding has diminished or become less urgent, say those behind the report. But it isn’t possible to begin paying those costs for several more years, they say.

That’s in large part because the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets hasn’t completed the assessments that will identify where to spend it, said Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore, who chairs the Act 73 Working Group.

Those assessments will identify what projects need to be done at Vermont’s roughly 700 small farms to reduce the phosphorus pollution they send into state waters, Moore said. About half the cattle in the state live on small farms, she said. Those are defined as having fewer than 200 head of cattle, for instance, or 25,000 hens, or 3,000 sheep.

Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said he didn’t know when his agency would have the assessments wrapped up, nor would he estimate the costs associated with reducing pollution at small farms.

“We’re inspecting those now,” Tebbetts said. “Somewhere along the way, we’ll figure out how much the need is in terms of dollars.”

Even if Tebbetts’ agency had the money, Moore said, officials wouldn’t know what to do with it.

“Even if the resources were available, we haven’t completed the assessments to do that work,” she said.

Tebbetts would not say whether that’s an accurate statement. “We have enough money now to do what we need to do on the ground,” he said.

Tebbetts’ predecessor said this approach will saddle Vermonters with much larger pollution payments in the future.

The report omits funding that’s currently needed to slow pollution from Vermont farms and defers those costs until later, said Chuck Ross, former secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

That approach, Ross said, will lead to a backlash against farmers once the public figures out those costs have been simply delayed. He said that farmers, for their part, have already contributed “more than (their) fair share of the solution.”

“I worry that’s like a balloon payment nobody’s talking about out there in the future that needs to be identified now,” he said.

The legislature also needs to figure out how costs are split between the state and other entities before anyone can figure out the best way to pay for Vermont’s water pollution problem, Moore said.

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