Proposed water quality bill includes statewide ‘per parcel fee’ for lake cleanup

Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains in New York as seen from the waterfront in Burlington. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger
Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains in New York as seen from the waterfront in Burlington. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

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.

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  • Candy Moot

    Assuming/Hoping that since Lake Champlain is the lake most in trouble and referenced here, that the rest of us won’t be taxed (more than we already have) to pay for it? In the NEK we work hard and contribute greatly to keep our lakes clean already.

    • Peter Liston

      Why should the rest of us have to pay for it?

      For the same reason that people from Shelburne and Killington pay more to the education fund than people from Victory and Concord.

      It’s the same reason that people who will never use interstate 91 or route 5 pay for them.

      State sales taxes generated from Home Depot and Best Buy go to help communities in the NEK even though many over there shop in New Hampshire.

      We’re all in this together. We solve problems together.

      The health of Lake Champlain is important to all of us.

  • Accepted Agricultural Practices Regulations


    I copied and pasted this paragraph from the AAP Regulations –

    The Agency of Agriculture is authorized by statute to manage the State’s Agricultural Nonpoint
    Source Pollution Reduction Program planning, implementation and regulation. The Vermont
    Agency of Natural Resources, which is the designated lead State water quality agency, is
    responsible for the management and enforcement of all other water quality/ water pollution
    control and wetland protection statutes and rules of the State. The Agriculture Agency is required
    to cooperate with the Agency of Natural Resources in developing and implementing the
    Agricultural Nonpoint Source Pollution Reduction Program. The two agencies have entered into
    a Memorandum of Understanding describing the procedures to be used while coordinating their
    respective efforts.

    So, how are they doing??? Seems nothing has changed since 2006. We have these Agencies in charge of water quality and get a report from the EPA that is not so good. I think the State needs to start ENFORCING some of these AAP Regulations.

    Also, The need for a “no cut zone” (where trees could grow) should be established along all waterways,(this would be good for fish and other aquatic life) then a “grass zone” to establish a certain width of buffer. Maybe 15 ft. no cut with 10 feet of grass.

    With these two Agencies in charge and the looming report from the EPA, I feel it is time to do something substantial with buffer zones for Agriculture.

    • James Maroney

      Ray is on the right track; but the Accepted Agricultural Practices rules, which have been in effect for 19 years, more than enough to time to know their efficacy, have empirically failed. That the agency of agriculture wants now to reassert them as a fix for the lake pollution they have consistently and very expensively failed to address, makes the rules susceptible to the imprecation that perhaps they were not conceived so much to correct the problem but to protect the industry from intrusive regulation. So it is not time to enforce the rules; it is time to bring them up for judicial review.

  • Bruce Post

    Cleaning up the water pollution problem obviously won’t be easy, and I commend David Deen’s efforts.

    The per parcel, flat fee seems to treat almost every parcel owner relatively the same regardless of the run-off they generate. I prefer the approach Burlington seems to have: charge commercial properties for the run-off they generate.

    For instance, my flat fee assessment, which I would gladly pay, would be $10. Does this legislation count Lowe’s, the Essex Town Outlets, and IBM, all with acres of impervious surface — or as some call it, “non-performing asphalt” — as one parcel each? Therefore, would they pay only $10 more than a homeowner? If so, no wonder the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce loves it.

    Also, I like Lori Fisher’s idea of a fertilizer tax.

  • All this because EPA never implemented the CWA, because it used an essential water pollution test(BOD) incorrect to set sewage treatment standards and as consequence not only ignored 60% of the oxygen demanding pollution, but all the nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste, while this waste also is a fertilizer for algae and for each pound will grow 20 pound of algae. When the algae die they create the dead zones we now experience in all open wares.
    Time to hold EPA accountable before we waste more time and money on new programs that are doomed to fail, as long as we do not test properly.

  • andew nemethy

    Having been a longtime paddled on Champlain, I’ve seen with my own eyes its gradual degradation and the growing incidence of algae. This is indeed a statewide issue with so many rivers feeding the lake and other bodies of water. I’d pay $10 off my taxes to improve a state resource; but I do think large commercial businesses with giant asphalt lots feeding polluted runoff should face higher fees to pay for settling pools and other innovative solutions. Here’s another idea: An educational plan to not use ROundup and other toxic lawn chemicals that feed into our rivers and lakes. The aisles at Home Depot, Aubuchon etc. and the ads are a chemical minefield. It all goes downstream.

    • Matt Fisken

      Andrew, you get my vote for comment of the year. The now widespread and accepted use of glyphosate is harming the health of Vermont’s entire ecosystem—not just the lakes.

      I will admit, I am somewhat biased as I enjoy weeding by hand and detest the look of chem-fried plants left in place.

  • Tim Meehan

    Really, ladies and gentlemen. Another property tax? Will it become another property tax where only 1/3 pay their full responsibility. Is no one under the golden dome sensitive to the people of Vermont. If cleaning up Lake Champlain is a priority then go through the budget and scrap funding items that have a lower priority. I only wish that all my dreams could be funded by someone else, but they will not because those same people have there own dreams. Please spend our money like it were coming out of your own pocket, out of your own home budget.

  • Pete Novick

    Gee, last time I checked, one of the other 49 states in the Union shared shoreline with Lake Champlain.

    Yet, this article make no mention of any Vermont state initiatives to meet the EPA’s guidance by coordinating actions and sharing costs with that other state.

    Dead in the water indeed.

  • John Dupee

    Sorry to be repetitive. Any data that I see makes it very clear ( no pun intended) that agricultural run-off is the main culprit in the southern part of Lake Champlain and Missisquoi Bay. Given that, Lori Fisher’s suggestion of a Fertilizer Tax is a start, However, it will not address the manure problem which contributes.

  • Jamie Longtin

    Does anyone know how many tens of millions of dollars have already been spent in the last 20 years “studying” the problems that plague Lake Champlain? Where could I find this information?

    • James Maroney

      The state spends approximately $60-80M/year supporting conventional agriculture (Vermont agriculture is predominantly dairy and dairy is predominantly conventional) on a variety of programs all intended on their faces to “save agriculture and protect water quality,” among them Current Use ($50M), Vermont Housing and Conservation Board ($22-25M), sales tax exemptions ($?M). In addition to these, which have been in effect since the late 1970s, the Vermont legislature allocated $140M, – $140M – of federal and state taxpayer dollars to Jim Douglas’s Lake “Action Plan,” called Clean and Clear 2003 – 2013. These expenditures have produced no reduction in lake pollution raising in my mind that perhaps the MOU, by which the legislature ill-advisedly shifted responsibility for clean water away from ANR and gave it to the agency of agriculture, might want to be revoked.