2.20.2015 – Water Quality and Budget Concerns

As Town Meeting week approaches, we are keenly aware of the work that needs to be done. One of the tasks is to construct the FY 2016 budget, which is going to be a very difficult task. If we are to pass a balanced budget, extremely unpleasant choices are going to have to be made. Revenue will have to be raised but serious cuts will be part of the final package. Included in the Administration’s proposal are over $10 million is employee cuts. This is an extremely painful choice to have to make because hardworking people’s livelihoods are at stake. During the Douglas administration, we laid off hundreds of state employees, hurting them and then lamenting the lost tax revenue to the state.

This week, the House Agriculture and Forest Product Committee again focused primarily on H.35, the water quality bill. On Friday, the House Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee voted H.35 out of committee on a 7-2-0 vote so the ball is now in our court.

After reading an article and the following comments about the bill on VTDigger.com, an online news service, one of my committee members good naturedly chided me saying “I thought all you Windham County folks were environmentally-minded. There are a whole bunch of comments from people wondering why Windham County should help pay for the Lake Champlain cleanup.” I responded that Windham County did generally have a strong environmental bent and that I had written about this very subject in my column recently but should probably repeat it. So here goes!

As environmental stewards, all Vermonters should care about and be prepared to support the health of Lake Champlain as well as our other waterways. The Vermont “brand” is a combination of many qualities including healthy, unsullied, and pristine but there are areas of Lake Champlain that are anything but. There are other waterways that are in bad shape too, including Lakes Carmi and Memphremagog. All of these lakes have been polluted with phosphorus from human development, agricultural non-point sources, as well as natural sources such as stream bank erosion due to higher than normal and more extreme weather events.

I have yet to experience the stench and disgusting nature of a blue green algae bloom but have vowed to travel to the northwest corner of the state this summer to witness it. Some of the folks who live there fear that instead of being known as the Green Mountain State we may become known as the Green Lake State. Just because this isn’t in our backyard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about it and contribute to the cleanup. In fact, a number of my constituents from this end of the state vacation and/or own property/camps on Lake Champlain or on one of the other northern lakes.

Last week, Emerson Lynn, Editor and Co-publisher of the St. Albans Messenger hosted a “Committee of the Whole” informational session in the Well of the House in Montpelier. Speakers included a wide variety of people from the business, tourism, and environmental sectors who presented compelling reasons for why we need to be “All In” and act now. It was good to see such a significant cross section of interests represented and standing together for the sake of our natural resources.
From a business and revenue standpoint, Lake Champlain and our other water bodies attract tourists, anglers, and people seeking recreational opportunities, which mean millions of dollars to our Vermont businesses and state coffers. Without that income, the entire state would be affected in a negative way and our budget challenges even greater.

Furthermore, we know that the Connecticut River is already in the picture. While the nutrient pollution is nitrogen, not phosphorus, the requirement to clean up the river is coming our way. A huge dead zone exists in the Long Island Sound at the mouth of the Connecticut River that is a result of nutrient runoff. There is in place a Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL) plan to clean up the Connecticut River, which will eventually have a greater effect on Vermont – at this point only New York and Connecticut are signatories to the plan. However, the EPA retains residual authority over our municipal sewage treatment plants along the river including, for example, Brattleboro, Putney, Bellows Falls, and Springfield. All of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for these facilities will require a nitrogen reduction plan by July 1, 2015.
All of the strategies we put in place for the Lake Champlain cleanup will help prepare us for what is coming down the road for the eastern side of the state. When that time comes, we will want the help of the entire state to clean up our mess too.

I remember with pride how Vermonters stood together after Tropical Storm Irene. How neighbors helped neighbors and worked incredibly hard so that three and a half short years after the devastation that fell upon Vermont, it is hard to see the vestiges unless you know where to look. The waters of our state are a public trust and I would hope that going forward we consider the cleanup of those waters all our responsibility like we did with Irene. The problems are everywhere and we need to be “All In”.