State Sees Big Bill To Clean Up Waters, But No Funding In Sight

01/25/13 10:19AM By John Dillon
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VPR/John Dillon
Blue green algae blooms on Lake Champlain were especially bad last summer, and led to this fish kill on Missisquoi Bay.

The Shumlin administration says that cleaning up Lake Champlain and other waterways will cost $156 million a year in additional funding.

But the governor in his budget address did not mention the pollution problem - or suggest a possible funding solution.

A few hours before Gov. Peter Shumlin outlined his spending priorities, other state officials were testifying about how to address the state's chronic water pollution issues.

"It's clear that our existing state regulatory program, our state system of public education and outreach and technical assistance are struggling to keep up with the scope of the problem," said David Mears, the state's commissioner of environmental conservation.

Mears and other state officials say the problem is too much nutrient pollution from stormwater, farms and other sources that flows off the land and into the water.

VPR/John Dillon
Blue green algae blooms on Lake Champlain were especially bad last summer, and led to this fish kill on Missisquoi Bay.
Last summer, the phosphorus pollution triggered toxic algae blooms that spread over many areas of Lake Champlain. Beaches were closed. And in late August, a massive fish kill turned Missisquoi Bay into a reeking dead zone.

Even before last summer's pollution issues, the Legislature asked the administration to lay out options to clean up Champlain and other waterways.

Officials came back with detailed plans and a cost estimate: $156 million a year to fund new pollution control efforts.

But the governor's budget includes no new funding for water programs. Environmental Commissioner Mears, in his briefing, tried to turn lawmakers' expectations away from any new dollars.

"The solutions are not just about funding. The solutions are about changing behavior, they're about implementing new technologies," he said. "There are lots of ways in which we can as a state make significant progress without spending huge sums of public money."

But environmental groups and some lawmakers were disappointed that water issues did not rank on the governor's list of spending priorities.

"A drive-by wave to the importance of clean water would have been nice," said Rep. David Deen, a Westminister Democrat who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.

Deen said the administration is open to re-directing existing programs to target water clean up. He said his committee will look at additional sources of revenue, such as fees on stormwater pollution.

"I am disappointed that clean water didn't make the top four priorities, given the importance that Vermonters place on clean water," he said.

"But I think we can deal with it and I think going forward we'll still be able to at least make a down payment on cleaning up the waters of the state."

Christopher Kilian heads the Vermont office of the Conservation Law Foundation. He said the administration's spending priorities are shortsighted.

"If we say to farmers and developers and municipalities you can dump your phosphorus in Lake Champlain - that may be saving them a buck in the short term but it's driving away the core tourism industry dollars that are really the backbone of our economy," he said.

Kilian and other environmentalists said the state also has a legal responsibility to help clean up the waters.


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