Treasurer: State can afford two years of lake cleanup

Lake Champlain’s frosty shoreline in Charlotte. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
Lake Champlain’s frosty shoreline in Charlotte. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
Vermont can meet federal requirements for cutting pollution in Lake Champlain over the next two years without raising new revenue, State Treasurer Beth Pearce told legislators Tuesday.

More than $50 million a year must come from within Vermont for a massive effort to reduce pollution in the lake to federal limits. State government will need to directly contribute around half that amount, Pearce said. The rest represents spending by the private sector and local governments.

The number includes only the most urgent costs, however. The full amount required — after subtracting available federal and other funding — is likely to be around $62 million a year, according to figures compiled by Pearce’s office. These costs assume a 20-year timeframe for completing the cleanup, she said.

The annual sum includes both what the state government must supply and what must come from businesses, nonprofits and municipalities, Pearce said.

Beth Pearce
State Treasurer Beth Pearce. File photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
Of the immediate $50 million annual investment that must begin in 2018, the state government should be able to cover its roughly $25 million annual contribution from existing revenue sources for at least the next two years, Pearce told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

“We do believe there’s a two-year window where we can put sizable monies into clean-water investments, assisting our municipalities and other stakeholders, without raising taxes,” Pearce said.

Legislators will need to come up with a longer-term solution by the end of that period, she said.

“The goal is to try to minimize the impact on additional revenues as much as possible, but at the same time, these are investments the state needs to make, and should be making, and we need a long-term plan to make it happen,” she said.

Gov. Phil Scott said in his inaugural address that the state’s share of the cleanup would be paid for through “existing resources” and that taxes and fees would not be raised to fill the gap. Others, including Senate President Tim Ashe, have questioned whether that’s possible.

Pearce’s projection assumes legislators initially tackle only the most pressing investments required to bring Vermont into compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s order that the state dramatically reduce Lake Champlain’s concentration of phosphorus.

Farms contribute more phosphorus to the lake than any other group, accounting for around 40 percent of the amount flowing into it each year. Phosphorus is used on farms as a fertilizer and is a major component of manure.

Vermont’s phosphorus pollution led the EPA to institute a “total maximum daily load,” or TMDL, for the lake, which sets the maximum amount of phosphorus that may flow into the lake to meet state and federal clean-water laws.

The $50 million amount is represented in Pearce’s report as “tier 1” investments, which are “absolutely necessary to comply with the TMDL,” she said.

Pearce and her office are writing a report for the Legislature, due Jan. 15, that will account for all costs of the federally mandated clean-water effort, she said. The report will also recommend ways to find the money needed to cover those costs.

The report will recommend giving local governments significant control over expenditures, Pearce said, but it will also recommend ways to make local spending accountable to state agencies.

Legislators will need to approach the Lake Champlain cleanup as a 20-year responsibility if it is to succeed, Pearce said.

“It can’t be catch-as-catch-can,” she told Senate Appropriations members. “It has to be a stable, full commitment to a designated amount of money over 20 years.”

A property transfer tax surcharge the Legislature instituted in 2015 to begin paying for Lake Champlain phosphorus reduction has amassed $5 million, Pearce said. Unless renewed, that tax increase expires June 30, 2018.

Pearce’s report is a product of more than 20 stakeholder meetings and of private meetings with more than 1,000 Vermonters, she said.

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