The state updated its Lake Champlain cleanup plan just before the EPA’s Monday night deadline, but a response from federal environmental regulators may be delayed.
The Department of Environmental Conservation sent a draft of the state’s lake restoration plan to the Environmental Protection Agency. Now the state is waiting for information from the agency before Gov. Peter Shumlin sends a final commitment letter.
The governor said Tuesday at an unrelated news conference that the final plan could be delayed.
“I am prepared to send a commitment letter to the EPA as soon as the EPA requires it. As you know, right now, we’re actually waiting for some information from the EPA, so they may well be asking for some slight delay. So, again, I’m going to stay away from dates,” Shumlin said.
The EPA rejected the state’s water quality plan in 2011 after the Conservation Law Foundation filed a federal lawsuit calling on the state to enhance its water quality standards. The state last year drafted a plan to scale back runoff – the leading cause of phosphorus loading into the lake – and is now awaiting final approval from the EPA.
The EPA, which is enforcing the standards under the Clean Water Act, is still reviewing the plan, according to a spokesman for the agency.
“At first glance, there is certainly more detail than was contained in the proposal the state issued last fall. Those details will require careful review, which EPA has just begun. We will not provide further comment until the review is complete,” David Deegan, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement.
Shumlin is disappointed the state has not succeeded in cleaning up the lake given the money it has already spent to do so.
“What I can tell you is, I want clean water,” he said. “We are frustrated by the fact that to date we spent a lot of loot without much to show for it.”
The most recent draft, like the state’s previous plan, focuses on nonpoint sources of runoff: agriculture and livestock, transportation, river channels and urban development – all of which are major contributors to phosphorus pollution in the lake.
Scientists link high phosphorus concentrations to harmful algae blooms and the spread of invasive species – harming the aquatic habitat and affecting major drivers of the state’s economy, such as lakeside businesses and tourism.
The plan guides new, far-reaching development standards and agricultural practices – “a full suite of tools,” said Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears, who has been working closely on the plan.
Under the plan, farmers would meet new acceptable agricultural practices (AAPs), such as seeding waterways to prevent gully erosion; the state and towns would invest in drainage and culverts along roads; river channels would be restored to their natural courses; and cities would have to invest in “green” stormwater infrastructure.
Though the plan does not address staffing levels at the agencies responsible for overseeing the cleanup, the plan is designed to be enforceable, Mears said.
“It’s real programs with increased oversight and accountability, combined with education, outreach and assistance,” he said.
The oversight and assistance will come at a cost, however. “We discussed funding to the extent that we need to be more coordinated,” Mears said.
Mears said the administration will have a proposal for the Legislature to consider by fall.
Lawmakers this session have been scrambling to find revenue sources for the cleanup, including raising the state’s rooms and meals tax, the liquor and wine sales tax, and placing an added fee on rental cars. Together these sources would generate about $4 million for assistance programs.
Shumlin, who has committed to raise no new taxes, said he met last week with Gina McCarthy, the administrator for the EPA, to discuss how the state can partner with every possible federal agency to support the cleanup.
“I personally think that we shouldn’t raise Vermont money until we get every penny that we can out of the federal government. And we will,” he said.
The state could lose federal funding for the cleanup and face heightened regulations on water treatment centers if the EPA does not accept the plan.
“Upon receiving EPA’s approval of the Phase One Plan as proposed, the Department [of Environmental Conservation] will work with our state agency partners to request additional federal funds, and will seek additional state funding as necessary,” the report reads.
Either way, the state will pay for cleanup, Mears says, and upgrading wastewater treatment facilities provides little return on investments. (In fact, the most recent plan does not even reference this source of pollution, he said.)