Federal regulators have called on the state to clean up Lake Champlain – requiring an implementation plan and the financial resources to back it up. But Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has maintained his pledge of no new taxes, will not offer up any state money this year.
“There’s going to be all kinds of ideas and proposals floated,” Shumlin said last week when asked about available state money for the cleanup. “I can tell you this, I’m for clean water.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is requiring the state to reduce phosphorus loading into Lake Champlain and is threatening to use the Clean Water Act to tighten water discharge limits on the state’s wastewater treatment centers if the state fails to provide “reasonable assurances” to clean up the lake by the end of April.
The state has made significant progress on the issue, according to EPA officials, but the federal agency is still looking for a financial commitment from the state.
“They want specific steps and they want to know how we intend to pay for it,” said Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, chair of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.
The committee has been pushing to get an omnibus water quality bill through this session. The bill, H.586, includes a menu of funding options, including tax increases to funnel money to the cleanup.
But the administration does not plan to put any financial commitments on the table this year; instead, it will wait until the EPA issues a detailed plan to cut back on phosphorus loading into the lake later this summer.
The administration will send a letter to the EPA by the end of April detailing the state’s commitment to the cleanup. Shumlin said he will provide only the necessary details to get the EPA’s “buy-in,” which he hopes does not include a financial commitment.
Shumlin said the state should first figure out how to best spend existing funds to clean up the state’s lakes and rivers before putting money on the line.
“We’ve spent a lot of loot over the last 10, 20 years in Vermont on this one. And the results have been pretty paltry,” Shumlin said. He said he is telling his administration, “‘listen, you’ve got to convince me that you’ve got a plan that’s going to work before I’m going to be spending one dime on this.”
State agencies are looking inland to the state’s forests, roads, farms and urban landscapes to reduce the lake’s phosphorus loading by 36 percent, according to the state’s proposed Lake Champlain Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which sets phosphorus pollution targets.
The administration plans to leverage federal funds to support the cleanup, including existing grants from the Department of Agriculture, the agencies of Transportation and Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers, and the EPA.
“We are working very hard to persuade the federal government that this is a national resource and they also need to increase their federal level of investment,” Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said.
Mears, who has been leading the charge on the cleanup, said the state will need help from the federal government for the task.
“And that could make a big difference. Because if it’s just state funding alone, I’m not confident that we can get the plan done that we’re hoping to implement,” he said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have been working to put several revenue sources on the table to demonstrate a commitment to the EPA.
A proposed water quality bill sets new standards for agriculture, forestry and infrastructure – all nonpoint sources of water pollution, the key factors leading to phosphorus loading into the lake.
The committee attached several funding mechanisms to each proposal, including a 0.25 percent increase in the state’s rooms and meals tax; a 0.25 percent increase in the liquor and wine sales tax; and a 1 percent fee on rental vehicles – scraping together more than $4 million annually, according to the committee’s working proposal.
The bill will have to pass through several money committees before arriving on the House floor, but Deen said the committee will likely get the bill out before next week’s crossover deadline.
“It’s going to be a heavy lift for those other committees to get to it and get through,” he said Thursday morning, “but we intend to try.”
Stephen Perkins, director of ecosystem protection for the EPA, said in an interview that any funding proposals put on the table would be “very positive.”
“We want to get a clear picture of what programs will be implemented by when,” Perkins told lawmakers during a visit to Vermont last month. “We want to see how all of that lays out to have confidence that stuff is going to happen.”