By Deb Markowitz
This past month, Gov. Peter Shumlin opened the legislative session with an unprecedented focus on the environment. Understanding that global climate change threatens our way of life, the governor announced new initiatives aimed at continuing to expand our renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors—creating jobs, saving Vermonters money and doing our part to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. He also talked at length about our Clean Water Initiative and Lake Champlain restoration plan.
While it is true that the EPA has told Vermont that we need to take significant steps to clean up Lake Champlain, a water body that is plagued by nutrient pollution, it is also the right thing to do. Lake Champlain alone brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity each year. Protection of this lake is critical to protecting our economy, and it is also the right thing to do for our children and grandchildren. Future generations of Vermonters deserve the same opportunity we have had to swim, fish, boat and drink the waters of Lake Champlain.
Our plan to clean up Lake Champlain focuses first on areas of greatest pollution where we can make the most impact with our finite resources. It focuses on polluted stormwater runoff from farms, developed land (ex. parking lots and rooftops), roads and from streambank erosion. The cleanup plan also contemplates improving pollution controls on wastewater treatment facilities as a secondary priority since only a small portion (3 percent) of the pollution comes from these sources.
Tools for addressing this pollution will vary by region depending on the nature of land uses and pollution sources in that region, but will include education and outreach, technical assistance, planning, regulation and financial support. For example, there will be new and expanded stormwater management permits required in our built areas to minimize pollution from state and local roads, new construction and from existing built areas. Updated accepted agricultural practices will apply to all farms and a new focus on addressing pollution from small farms will be put in place, along with a focused enforcement program. We will expand investments in protecting and restoring critical natural resources like wetlands, forests, river corridors and floodplains in order to prevent erosion, reduce pollution and reduce flood damage.
Of course, all of this costs money. Over the past few months, significant new federal support has been announced through existing federal programs such as the Lake Champlain Basin Program, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But we also have to do our part. That is why the governor announced new revenue in his budget to support expanding existing state programs that provide resources and technical services to farmers, watershed groups and municipalities, including the Ecosystem Restoration Program, the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, the Better Backroads Program, and Agriculture Best Management Practices.
The Clean Water Initiative will be supported by a variety of water related permit fees, mitigation payments, a new fee on fertilizers and a small assessment on commercial, industrial and possibly other non-residential properties as well as philanthropic contributions such as the $5 million donation announced by Keurig Green Mountain. As the governor noted in his address, Vermonters have, “lost patience with finger pointing about who is to blame for poor water quality. We are now working together across the divides that can exist among advocates, businesses, farmers, neighbors and government to get the job done.”
Deb Markowitz is secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.