Vermont’s water bodies need cleaning up, but so far funding for the effort remains murky.
The state is under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up Lake Champlain. In response, the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources is drafting a 50-page bill designed to restore and preserve the state’s water quality. Water runoff from agricultural and urban landscapes is blamed as the chief cause of water pollution.
The bill includes strategies to prevent pollution runoff, including new standards for agriculture and livestock practices, construction guidelines for roads and bridges, and stormwater management tools.
The committee has identified a funding source for cleanup costs that aligns with Gov. Peter Shumlin’s no new broad-based taxes pledge, according to Rep. David L. Deen, D-Putney, chair of the committee.
“Without the administration on board, we are dead in the water,” he told his colleagues on Tuesday.
The bill includes a stormwater fee (sometimes referred to as the per parcel fee) that requires owners of developed property to pay for runoff they create.
Deen said a modest stormwater fee and a redirection of current federal funds could raise a lot of money. He suggests a flat annual fee of $10 on all residential property and $20 on commercial development.
The fee would pay for a new program that would provide financial and technical assistance for projects to improve water quality, including grants to implement agricultural best management practices or repair flood damage and river corridor erosion.
Lori Fisher, executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee and a member of the Vermont Citizens Advisory Committee on the Future of Lake Champlain, presented lawmakers with five investment mechanisms to “safeguard and restore” the state’s waterways.
Her recommendations include a stormwater fee, a fertilizer tax, redirection of federal funds currently used for wastewater treatment facilities, a water bottle tax, and the use of the state’s Current Use Program to encourage land stewardship.
The stormwater fee has the support of the business community.
Catherine Davis of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, a Burlington-based business group said in an interview that her organization supports the fee because businesses “have a very deep understanding of the role that Lake Champlain plays in our economy.”
She said the chamber would support the bill if the state committed to funding the lake cleanup.
“We want to see that buy-in from the state in terms of the state determining that this is a priority among all the other priorities,” Davis said.
Municipalities are less enthusiastic.
Representatives from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns say the per parcel fee looks a lot like a new property tax.
In written testimony, Karen Horn, director of public policy and advocacy for the league, said, “Municipalities are not at all interested in collecting state fees or new property taxes.”
Horn said in an interview that towns need to play a role in the lake cleanup but they are already pressured by rising property taxes.
“We are not under any illusions that Lake Champlain is going to get cleaned up for free,” she said. “So, municipalities, farmers and everybody else is going to have to step up.”
Some municipalities already have programs in place to raise money for stormwater treatment. Laurie Adams, assistant director for Burlington Public Works water quality, last week issued a statement opposing the fee.
“Our largest concern related to the proposed fee structure is that it will become counter-productive to efforts we already have in place and may be perceived as double charging for the same service and then forcing us to apply for funding,” Adams said.
The city has developed its own stormwater program in 2009, which includes a flat fee placed on homes in Burlington while commercial development is assessed according to the amount of impervious surfaces.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency wants to see the state commit to specific policies and timelines for the Lake Champlain cleanup. Last fall, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets released a draft plan for restoring the Lake Champlain Basin. The EPA ordered the state to revise its total maximum daily load (TMDL), which sets targets for phosphorus loading into Lake Champlain, or face federal funding cuts and tightened regulations for facilities around the lake, among other regulatory pressures.
The Agency of Natural Resources will submit a Lake Champlain cleanup proposal to the EPA early this year that details cost and a proposed timeline.
Horn said lawmakers should wait until ANR and the EPA chart a path to clean up Lake Champlain. “Our concern is that (House Bill) 586 may go in a direction that’s different than where the EPA will end up going,” she said.
She said the state must create a consistent plan to give towns a clear responsibility.
“We would like to have a clear path in terms of what is going to be required by non-point source, point sources, local government, state government, roads, everything else. And we would like it to be very clear how dollars are going to be raised,” she said.