The deteriorating condition of Vermont’s waterways harms the state’s economy and way of life. Restoring them requires the state to raise sufficient funds and use them efficiently on appropriate cleanup projects and initiatives.
In my June column, I explained that, after four years of consideration, the Legislature agreed to a dedicated long-term funding source for water cleanup efforts. I now explain how the Legislature has addressed implementing, administering and funding clean water projects.
For years, Vermont has been confronting the growing threat to Lake Champlain from pollution, primarily too much phosphorous. This nutrient stimulates excessive growth of algae in the lake, which poses a public health hazard and harms recreational uses, aesthetic enjoyment and the lake’s wildlife.
Phosphorus comes from a variety of sources. It spills into the lake from farm fields and barnyards, where it is a product of fertilizers such as manure. It also comes from eroding streambanks, stormwater runoff from developed areas, including roads and parking lots, stormwater runoff from forested lands and wastewater discharges.
In 2015, the Legislature took a major step in addressing this ongoing problem when it passed Act 64, Vermont’s Clean Water Act. The law was intended to help the state meet its obligations under the federal Clean Water Act, particularly to satisfy restrictions known as a total maximum daily load — that is, a cap on the amount of phosphorous allowed to enter 12 different segments of Lake Champlain.
To meet these caps, Act 64 modifies existing regulatory programs and creates new ones. These programs require entities to obtain permits from the Agency of Natural Resources or the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets for a variety of activities that may discharge pollutants into the state’s waterways. To obtain a permit, an entity may have to adopt and maintain best management practices, such as building a stormwater retention basin, which treats stormwater runoff by emulating the waste treatment provided by natural watersheds.
The Legislature recognized that these practices required by regulatory programs would not reduce pollution enough to meet the state’s water quality standards. Voluntary, or “nonregulatory,” projects were needed as well. Thus Act 64 amended the statutory cleanup requirements, requiring nonregulatory reduction strategies.
These could include restoring wetlands, reforesting buffers along streams, reducing development in floodplains, and assisting with practical and cost-effective management practices for stormwater control from construction, redevelopment, or expansion of impervious surface that does not require a permit.
To encourage nonprofit organizations, landowners, municipalities and other entities to undertake such projects, the act established a Vermont Clean Water Fund to provide resources to both required regulatory and voluntary projects.
During the 2019 session, the Legislature determined that oversight of voluntary projects would be improved by using a regional watershed-based implementation system for them. It passed Act 76, which directs the Agency of Natural Resources to designate “clean water service providers” for each impaired water basin. These will likely be regional planning commissions, natural resource conservation districts, or local clean water associations. The providers will approve, implement, administer and oversee clean water projects at the local level when the project is not required under a regulatory program. Act 76 requires the state agency to assign a provider for each of the Lake Champlain basins by Nov. 1, 2020. There are six Lake Champlain basins; areas of South Burlington are within either the Winooski River Basin or the Northern Lake Champlain Basin.
To help direct the providers’ oversight, the Agency of Natural Resources will establish the amount of pollution reduction that each provider will be responsible for achieving. By Nov. 1, 2021, the agency will establish methodology for determining the cost per unit of pollution reduction for clean water projects in the Lake Champlain basins. That will help the clean water service providers ensure that they are reducing pollution in the most efficient way. As they weigh which projects to fund, they will consider the costs and benefits of each project’s phosphorus reduction. The providers will report annually on implementation of clean water projects and compliance with their pollution-reduction goals.
This new service delivery model will be integral to the state meeting its clean water obligations for Lake Champlain. If you have any questions or input on this issue, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 863-3086.