State looks beyond the shoreline in effort to clean up Lake Champlain

David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, testified before lawmakers on Wednesday on the state’s plan to restore Lake Champlain’s water quality. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, testified before lawmakers on Wednesday on the state’s plan to restore Lake Champlain’s water quality. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

A visit from a federal official Wednesday served as a reminder to lawmakers that the clock is ticking on a mandate to clean up Lake Champlain.

The Environmental Protection Agency expects a letter from the Legislature and Gov. Peter Shumlin by the end of March spelling out timelines and priorities for easing phosphorus pollution in the lake.

The nation’s sixth-largest body of fresh water, which many say is critical to Vermont’s quality of life and economy, does not meet water quality standards set by federal regulators. The state must clean up the lake or face tightened wastewater regulations and cutbacks in federal support, EPA officials say.

Stephen Perkins, director of ecosystem protection for the EPA, drove home the point Wednesday.

“We want to get a clear picture of what programs will be implemented by when,” Perkins told lawmakers. “We want to see how all of that lays out to have confidence that stuff is going to happen.”

Without a commitment from the state, the EPA said it will clamp down on sources of water pollution, namely water treatment plants. The state would then be required to upgrade the facilities at a huge cost or challenge the regulations in court, according to state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears.

“We’ll spend a lot of money on lawyers, we’ll spend a lot of money on forcing the more developed areas of our state to have to invest more in sewage treatment capacity, we’ll be requiring the largest developers of the state to shoulder the largest burden of the cost on some major developments. And all of that will contribute. It will help reduce the problem, but it will not get us to where we need to go,” Mears said.

The EPA will issue its final Lake Champlain Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) report, which sets a standard for phosphorus pollution into the lake, this summer. State agencies, already working to clean up the lake with tight resources, will be required to look inland to the state’s forests, roads, farms and urban landscapes to reach the goal of reducing the lake’s phosphorus loading by 36 percent.

Lawmakers asked what would happen if the state refused to pitch in for the cleanup.

“In this situation, under the Clean Water Act, it’s not really a question about whether the state of Vermont as a whole pays for these cleanup obligations. We will be paying one way or the other,” Mears said.

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA regulates point sources of water pollution, such as water treatment and sewage facilities that channel processed wastewater into the lake. But now the state is looking inland to rectify the lake’s water quality.

“We’re largely a rural state. Most of the pollution that’s going into the lake comes from the landscape,” Mears said. “Over 95 percent of the pollution comes from stormwater runoff. It’s not coming from those pipes.”

Mears said the cleanup will require state dollars, but federal and existing municipal funds used to manage stormwater can also be tapped. Next year, Mears said the agency will return to the Statehouse with specific cost estimates and strategic investment proposals.

A group of environmental advocates hosted a news conference after the hearing to urge the administration to make the commitment.

Christopher Kilian, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, recommended placing a fee on commercial development to pay for the cleanup.

Kilian said taxpayers should not have to shoulder the entire bill to clean up the lake. Instead, he said privately owned big box stores should pay for the stormwater runoff from their parking lots.

“Those facilities can be required to retrofit their footprint on order to protect Lake Champlain,” he said “And, frankly, taxpayers should not be helping big box stores comply with environmental laws through public subsidies, that’s not fair to the taxpayer.”

Lawmakers are working through a package of water quality legislation this session, including a shorelands protection law to require permits for lakeshore development under certain conditions, which passed the Senate this year.

In addition, an omnibus water quality bill, H.586, is currently under review in committee.
Lawmakers have proposed a an annual stormwater fee for all developed property (sometimes referred to as the per parcel fee) to cover the cost of cleaning up runoff.

The Vermont Citizens Advisory Committee on the Future of Lake Champlain has presented lawmakers with several other investment options, including a fertilizer tax, redirection of federal funds currently used for wastewater treatment facilities and a bottled water tax. They also suggested the state’s Current Use Program could encourage land stewardship.

Perkins, of the EPA, said the agencies charged with the cleanup must have the proper authority to carry out the state’s plan.

“I think it’s fair to say that we are supportive of making sure that all of the agencies that have stuff to do here have proper authority to take the measures that are described here,” Perkins said in an interview after the hearing.

He continued, “And, you know, to the extent that (House bill) 586 deals with funding, again, anything that makes it more likely that the funds are available for implementing these things is very positive.”

John Herrick

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24 Comments on "State looks beyond the shoreline in effort to clean up Lake Champlain"


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Sean O'Neil
2 years 11 months ago

Thank you for covering this important issue. Vermont’s history and culture have been greatly influenced by Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains and it is our responsibility to protect them. Lake Champlain’s problems with Phosphorous and other pollutants have and always will need to be addressed at the watershed level, which is large and complex making the job of improving the lake’s water quality a huge challenge. But we can and must bend the curve on this problem given how economically and socially critical Lake Champlain is to our State and region.

2 years 11 months ago
“Lawmakers have proposed a water quality bill that includes a stormwater fee (sometimes referred to as the per parcel fee) to require owners of developed property to pay for runoff they create.” Perkins, of the EPA, said the agencies charged with the cleanup must have the proper authority to carry out the state’s plan. “I think it’s fair to say that we are supportive of making sure that all of the agencies that have stuff to do here have proper authority to take the measures that are described here,” Perkins said in an interview after the hearing”. – Looks like… Read more »
Karl Riemer
2 years 11 months ago

and farmers say the same thing the other way around, that targeting working farms rather than suburban dilettantes. pasture rather than asphalt, is an assault on their property rights and livelihood. Any discussion that starts with ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ and injects partisan prejudice is counterproductive.

2 years 11 months ago

Karl, if you want to participate in industry there should be sufficient care taken upon the implementation of such a process. Awareness of the water problems in Vermont were well documented well before these Industrial Farms were established in our State, yet nothing was done about regulating the possible/probable impact from these practices. Industrial Farms, along with liquid manure, are a tragedy in our State. Yet, with all the knowledge of water quality, these Industrial Farms were never properly regulated.

2 years 11 months ago

Agricultural run off into our streams and rivers has a major impact. Using incentives via the Current Use program makes a lot of sense. The Shoreland Protection Bill will not have much of an effect on Lake Champlain but could help the smaller lakes. Agriculture needs to start pulling its own weight in this discussion.

George Plumb
2 years 11 months ago
It is very interesting that in the endless discussion about how to clean up Lake Champlain there is never any mention about the underlying cause of the pollution, the more than doubling of the population and the resultant development in the Champlain Valley in the last fifty years. Our environmental leaders have been saying for decades now that “we can grow the economy while protecting the environment.” With all of our many environmental problems from the pollution of our lakes to greenhouse gas emissions this has proven to be totally false yet they keep on making the claim. In the… Read more »
Frank Seawright
2 years 11 months ago
The Lake Champlain Watershed map shows it extends out to the town of Eden and Eden lake. Just northeast of Eden lake is the Lowell Mtn, wind turbine installation and while the cut point for the watershed looks to be such that little of the runoff from that will enter the Lake Champlain watershed, it seems likely that some will. I understand that noises are being made about sticking several more turbines in the area right above Eden Lake and the runoff from that will surely enter the Lake Champlain watershed. The Lowell Mtn developers were given authorization to use… Read more »
Jonathan Willson
2 years 11 months ago
Buffer zones need to be mandatory and expanded for farmland. There really isn’t an option here. And treatment facilities need to be updated and forced into compliance. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had some funds to throw at this? Instead it all got sucked into the healthcare imbroglio. Shumlin and the legislature have put us in such an unsteady fiscal situation that we have no flexibility to deal with serious issues like rampant phosphorus pollution of our water bodies. And Ray, I agree with some of your assessments, but it’s important to note that water quality standards have been… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago
Jonathan, you said- “And Ray, I agree with some of your assessments, but it’s important to note that water quality standards have been on the books since the 1960s and have been instrumental in preserving the natural beauty of this great country. Individuals and organizations alike are going to have to pitch in on this one”. – Instrumental in preserving the Natural Beauty! Wow, our water is as bad or worse than ever! Our native fish in the rivers and streams are all but wiped out and the waters in the bays of Lake Champlain need shutting down each summer… Read more »
James Maroney
2 years 11 months ago
The matter of what the administration’s lake cleanup plan will cost only arose at yesterday’s meeting at the very end, seemingly as an afterthought. We all know it could be huge and we all know the plan will falter on this point. The plan now on the table is a tame effort to move us toward meeting our WQSs, which Secretary Ross and Commissioner Mears predict could take fifteen to twenty years. But while they do not venture to predict costs, the plan does not entail disrupting conventional dairy, the largest contributor. This is a failure on many levels; first… Read more »
Annette Smith
2 years 11 months ago
It’s no wonder the state is not making progress. Whether it’s sediment coming off mountains or approving dumping more (and more toxic) chemicals into drinking water or turning a blind eye for the sake of the sacred cow of agriculture or reducing pollutants permitted through NPDES permits, state politicians and regulators have had no appetite for protecting our waters. I offer three examples: 1. Photos of sedimentation going into streams on First Wind’s Sheffield Wind site in 2011. “There are some deficiencies in that area, Mears said. “But none appeared to have resulted in any harm to the waters of… Read more »
Bruce Post
2 years 11 months ago
Ironic, isn’t it? Our late Vermont U.S. Senator Robert Stafford was a champion of the Clean Water Act and led the successful campaign to override Reagan’s veto of amendments that strengthened that law; today, Vermont is a serious violator of that Act. Anyone with a reasonable smattering of knowledge about Vermont’s environmental history knows that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, our hills and mountains were skinned, scalped and otherwise plundered. Here is an interesting comment from the book Migration from Vermont, which chronicled these times: “Vermont, it was becoming evident, had never been an agricultural community in the true… Read more »
Jonathan Willson
2 years 11 months ago

Reverting would imply that we at one point left the “old ways of land abuse.” The switch to liquid manure helped spur this, but as some commenters above said, population is playing a huge role too.

You are dead on when you talk about eco-narcissism. Our water pollution crisis really exposes this.

Chet Greenwood
2 years 11 months ago
There are many contributors to the degradation of our lakes. We seem to have a study commission annually to determine what has happened and how can we fix it! The studies all show that agriculture is only a third of the problem and that municipalities, roads, parking lots are a greater contributor. Runoff from residential areas is a major factor. The shoreland owner is probably the least polluting of all yet they seem to be the “low hanging fruit” the Legislature goes after. They are the real stewards of our watersheds, and particularly the lakes and ponds. Someone who lives… Read more »
Jim Barrett
2 years 11 months ago

It is very obvious the people supposedly working for the state have no clue, they have just squandered millions and millions for nothing…fine job Shumlin/legislature. No wonder people have to work into their eighties to keep up with the bunch!

Kai Mikkel Forlie
2 years 11 months ago
“The state would then be required to upgrade the facilities at a huge cost or challenge the regulations in court, according to state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears.” Isn’t it all too evident by now that our legacy water and wastewater systems have failed us? Accidental releases of millions of gallons of raw or partially treated sewage into rivers and lakes, toxic sludge, contaminated drinking water, massive financial costs to our cash strapped communities simply in maintaining the legacy systems we already have (not including the additional burden to build out new and/or perform upgrades), all examples of… Read more »
Lee Stirling
2 years 11 months ago

I didn’t realize that Vermont was the only state that Lake Champlain touched that may be contributing to its pollution. I guess I missed why this conversation only includes Vermont’s culpability and responsibility for its cleanup.

Bruce Post
2 years 11 months ago
Kathryn Flagg wrote an excellent article in the weekly Seven Days on this same topic. Here is the link: Please note the comment thread. Kathryn was asked a similar question about the focus on Vermont. Here is what she answered: ” … just to clarify a few points on the New York – Vermont division. There are regulations governing phosphorous runoff from the New York side of the lake; the state has its own TMDL, but because it falls under a different region in the EPA, it wasn’t included in the lawsuit which challenged the TMDL in Vermont. And… Read more »
Seve Merrill
2 years 11 months ago
Please read more from James Maroney, especially his comments and letters to David Mears, just look up “e-coli in the Lemon Fair River” in the search column at the top of this page..He explains the EPA failures in the “conveyance” from farms right after the CWA, and how we virtually ignore the elephant in the room, the Mega-Dairies and the switch to liquid manure which has been a complete disaster..Look up the report from last spring that said OVER 55% of US rivers are now unable to support ANY kind of aquatic life due to (mostly) phosphorus runoff..I swear we… Read more »
Kathy Leonard
2 years 11 months ago

Another solution would be for these farms to compost their manure. A large farm in my region began composting manure and this (being in a narrow river valley) took a big load off the river that runs through it.

2 years 11 months ago
Ok, so we all think we know the answers. We all give our eloquent explanations of what should be done to clean our waterways. We are all bought into the need to “sacrifice” our rights as rural property owners, well, maybe we don’t see the whole picture. Maybe we need to pull back the curtain and take a peek behind the Agenda 21 curtain. Watch the short video at the end of the article in the link above. Sometimes things are never as they appear. I have known about Agenda 21 for some time now but to talk… Read more »
Brad Little
2 years 11 months ago
Much here has been well said……..but the bottom line is that human beings are consumers of their environment both historically and presently. At the worst, they do so with a total selfish disregard for impact……at the best , they self regulate or submit to imposed regulation, however, none of us ever stop consuming or completely give up our own “desires.” Even with the best of intentions, our consumption requires a price that slowly takes it’s toll. The politicians, pundits, scientists and other well intentioned folks have never been able to stop the process…… best, we alter it or slow it.
Rob Bast
2 years 10 months ago
One of the things noted in this discussion is that we do not have unlimited resources to throw at this problem, so we have to be clever about allocating what resources we do have, to get the biggest reduction for the money. With that in mind, I hope that there is recognition that much of the useful expenditure of resource on municipal treatment has been made, and that in general regular operation, these facilities are contributing a very small proportion of the pollution (phosporous in particular) to receiving waters. Getting to the next level of treatment here would be quite… Read more »
Bill Chaisson
2 years 10 months ago
A few years ago I wrote a couple of articles about phosphorus pollution of Cayuga Lake. We have a lot of farming around here (industrial and otherwise), but in NYS at least farming is much more regulated than suburban land-use practices with regard to the environment. The big revelation for me came from a study done by a Cornell professor and his colleagues that showed how organic matter built up on impermeable surfaces (parking lots, gutters, roofs et al.) after normal rain events and then began to break down. Then a gullywasher would come along and sweep it all into… Read more »
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