Energy & Environment

Advocates: State action needed now to fund Lake Champlain cleanup

[A] crowd of more than 100 people poured into the Cedar Creek Room at the Statehouse Wednesday to call for investments in Lake Champlain cleanup efforts.

Lawmakers are considering new taxes and fees to pay for long-term fixes to an ongoing problem: Phosphorus from farms, parking lots and roads is leaching into Lake Champlain and causing toxic algae blooms that have closed beaches, threatened water supplies and hurt tourism and property values.

But proposals for new state revenues to fund the lake cleanup are hitting a brick wall. Gov. Phil Scott has promised to veto any bill that includes new taxes or fees.

The pollution mitigation efforts, however, are not optional. EPA has set mandatory limits on phosphorus pollution, and the state is required to take action to stem contaminated runoff.

The federal government has promised to pay for half of the $1 billion cost of cleaning up the lake over a 20-year period, but President Donald Trump has threatened dramatic cuts to the agencies that fund water cleanup.

In an email, Rebecca Kelley, the governor’s communications director, said that if the federal government reduces funding for the lake, Scott will “work with the legislature to address the local impacts.”

James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, says Trump and Scott have made their priorities clear.

“Where do you set priorities? It’s not in these press conferences, it’s in the budget,” Ehlers said. “Clean water is not a priority.”

Lawmakers are considering a revenue package of $25 million a year to support cleanup efforts for the next two years, and a comparable amount for the following 18 years. The funding provision is in the omnibus capital bill, which will likely be voted on the House floor next week.

The legislation sets aside $45.4 million over the next two years for pollution mitigation, and leaves unresolved the question of how to fund 18 more years of lake cleanup.

Environmental advocates say the plan does not put a long-term revenue source in place quickly enough.

A group of environmental, farm and business nonprofits recently sent a letter to the Legislature asking lawmakers to adopt a per-parcel fee this year that would go into effect in 2020 if legislators can’t come up with a better funding solution by then.

Tax and fee proposals are typically passed at the beginning of a new biennium. Lawmakers are chary of enacting new revenues in an election year.

Jared Carpenter, of the Lake Champlain Committee, said once the two-year window closes, a new legislative body will become responsible for long-term funding.

“Nobody wanted to deal with it in 2015, and nobody wants to deal with it in 2017,” Carpenter said. “So what makes anybody think they’ll want to deal with it in 2019? We’re kicking the can down the road in two-year increments.”

“The lake isn’t going to get any cleaner, and this is going to get more and more expensive, the longer we wait,” Carpenter said.

For the time being, Scott prefers to wait and see what options open up.

Lawmakers have proposed bonding against future payments from Transmission Developers Inc., for a proposed transmission line under Lake Champlain, to help pay for pollution mitigation. Scott is not opposed to the idea.

“He’s committed to funding clean water initiatives with existing revenue and financial tools, and Treasurer Pearce’s two-year interim plan provides time to identify those sources for the out years,” Kelley wrote.

Advocates say they hope Scott will act more quickly if he’s persuaded that supporting the environment will support business owners in the process.

“The message that needs to be heard is: clean water is business, clean water is tourism, clean water is recreation,” said Rebekah Weber, Conservation Law Foundation’s Lake Champlain lakekeeper. “The economic side of the equation, sure it looks like a large investment up front, but it’s really about protecting the businesses of Vermont.”

Lauren Hierl, political director at Vermont Conservation Voters, says Scott’s threat seems to have cowed members of the House, but senators “have shown a willingness for new taxes and fees … and they’ve identified clean water as a priority.”

Once the House sends the capital bill to the Senate, senators may elect to put some new funding measures into it, Hierl said. Clean-water advocates say they hope Senators will do so.

Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons, D-Williston, a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, said lawmakers must come up with a plan this year for long-term water-quality funding.

“I think it would be almost irresponsible” to adjourn the 2017 legislative session “without a firm plan for going forward,” Lyons said.

“Everybody’s saying, ‘Don’t raise fees, don’t raise taxes,’ but we’ve known about this for 15 years,” Lyons said. “The sooner we roll our sleeves up and establish a more robust, sustainable clean water fund, the better off we’ll all be.”

Lyons said she hopes to see, at the very least, a “framework” coming out of the Legislature this year that will leave details to members of the working group.

“I don’t think we want to build legislation that’s confrontational, necessarily, but I think we need legislation that’s realistic and allows us to move forward,” Lyons said. “Maybe he’ll veto it.

“We need to do this,” she said. “It’s time for action, not fear.”

Existing sources

While lawmakers seek new long-term funding sources, a House panel has taken steps to keep an existing source of revenue for clean-water efforts in place for the foreseeable future.

A property-transfer tax, instituted in 2015 through Act 64, brings in about $5 million a year and was set to expire in 2019 once lawmakers found a better long-term funding source.

The House Ways and Means Committee proposes to eliminate the expiration date in this year’s miscellaneous tax bill and sets up a working group that would identify long-term funding sources for Lake Champlain.

Among possible sources is a proposed 1,000 megawatt international power cable that would bring wind power from New York and hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts. The cable would be buried beneath Lake Champlain.

The company, Transmission Developers Inc., intends to respond to a solicitation to be issued by Massachusetts in April, and does not yet have an agreement with the state.

Through negotiations with the Conservation Law Foundation, Transmission Developers Inc. has agreed to pay the state about $6.5 million each year for 40 years. The money is to be used for water-quality improvements.

Rep. Janet Ancel, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said she’s been in conversations with the state treasurer about borrowing against annual payments from TDI to help pay for lake cleanup.

“Any way we can get that money sooner rather than later, even at a discount, I think would be positive,” Ancel said on Wednesday. “Assuming that it’s built.”

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Mike Polhamus

About Mike

Mike Polhamus wrote about energy and the environment for VTDigger. He formerly covered Teton County and the state of Wyoming for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, in Jackson, Wyoming. Polhamus studied at Southwestern Oregon Community College, University of Oxford and Sarah Lawrence College. His research has been commissioned on a variety of topics such as malnutrition and HIV, economic development, and Plato’s Phaedo. Polhamus hails originally from the state of Oregon. He now lives in Montreal.

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