The state’s plan to clean up Lake Champlain is inadequate, environmental groups say, and some doubt the governor’s commitment to the task.
The problem, they say, is the plan lacks funding and regulatory commitment.
“There’s a really solid house built on a really shaky foundation,” said Kim Greenwood, a staff scientist with the Vermont Natural Resources Defense Council. “No matter how good our plan is, if we can’t get the funding for it, nothing is going to happen.”
The administration’s proposal, which it sent to the Environmental Protection Agency, this week, includes new standards to limit phosphorus runoff into the lake. Phosphorus pollution is linked to toxic algae blooms considered harmful to health, the environment and the state’s tourism economy.
The EPA rejected the state’s previous plan after the Conservation Law Foundation challenged it in court. The federal agency has been working with the state to draft a new plan by the end of the summer; it is awaiting a commitment letter from Gov. Peter Shumlin before it hands down a final water quality plan.
“This letter will decide the fate of the lake. If we can’t get the governor to commit, it doesn’t matter if we had the perfect solution,” Greenwood said.
The EPA has said the state must provide “reasonable assurances” to clean up the lake, including financial and regulatory commitments. Shumlin says the state needs a solid plan before he spends any more “loot” on the cleanup. Shumlin is working with the EPA to draw all available federal funds.
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears, who has been working closely on the plan, said the department will ask lawmakers for money next session.
“The funding is not likely to come all at once, anyways. This will require a sustained, continued effort,” he said. “I think this will be a forever conversation at some level.”
Former Lessons Learned
Former Gov. Jim Douglas’ 2003 Clean and Clear Action Plan was similar to the state’s current proposal. It focused on runoff from farms, forests and roads, and river management.
The state spent more than $57 million on (and leveraged $68 million in federal funding). In 2008, a performance audit by a Vermont consulting group concluded the program had done little to reduce phosphorus in the lake (though it pointed out there is a lag time between “action and outcomes”).
Pollution from wastewater treatment facilities was reduced under the plan, but there was criticism for not cutting pollution from other nonpoint sources.
The Conservation Law Foundation is concerned that the current plan will be more of the same.
“We suffered through a decade of delay in the lake cleanup during the Douglas years that was justified through a catchy name for a program that didn’t exist, Clean and Clear. And I’m concerned the governor’s comments are heading in a similar direction,” said Chris Kilian, vice president and director of environmental advocacy for the organization.
Kilian said the current proposal changes little.
“Basically to correct the problem, the Department of Environmental Conservation is putting forward business as usual, and maybe a little more of it, on the same programs that have put us in the predicament in the first place,” he said.
He said the state should enforce new standards rather than create voluntary incentives; ask private developers to share the cost of building out new stormwater infrastructure through retrofits and building standards; and give state agencies more resources to enforce existing and new standards.
Kilian would not say whether the group will challenge the final plan under the Clean Water Act in court.
“We’re not standing down in any way,” he said. “We have a legal settlement with EPA that we intend to hold them accountable to.”
Mears said the plan increases the reach of existing programs and sets new standards, including a new program to retrofit certain state and municipal roads. And these new programs will come with a price tag the state is committing to cover if necessary.
“We have to be able to provide them some support and funding and assistance,” he said, referencing the farmers, foresters, developers, towns and others to be affected by the new program standards.
Even if the plan were fully enforced, further action is needed to address the underlying problem of water quality issues in the state, according to James Ehlers, director of Lake Champlain International, a group formed to improve the lake’s water quality.
“I know that these plans are not going to work. These are the same kinds of plans that have been tried elsewhere and have failed,” Ehlers said.
He pointed to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office that concluded the EPA needs to do more to ensure that states meet water quality pollution targets, known as total maximum daily loads (TMDL).
“Is the plan going to work? No,” he said. “There’s not a fundamental change.”
This change, Ehlers said, could include a plan that creates a market for capturing waste and stormwater onsite.
“We need to create a sustainable economy built upon jobs that protect our water supply, not poison it,” he said. “Passing these products downstream creates problems for somebody else.”