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Lake Champlain Is a Mess; Now Who's Going to Clean It Up?

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When Vermonters converged in Bridport last week to weigh in on a complicated water-quality bill moving through the Statehouse, Bridport beef farmer Phil Wagner reminded the lawmakers on hand that "everyone behind me is in favor of clean water."

"Everyone" in the room, or close to it, was a farmer. The majority was male — many in muck boots, flannel and heavy canvas winter coats — and the earthy, sweet smell of the milk barn still clung to a few as they settled into metal folding chairs. They'd gathered at the Bridport Masonic hall to offer comments on H.586, a sprawling piece of legislation that proposes additional water-quality regulations for agriculture, infrastructure and urban development.

Though H.586 doesn't single out a body of water, it's Lake Champlain that seems to be of most concern to lawmakers, scientists and farmers. The amount of phosphorous entering the water exceeds healthy levels in every portion of the lake. In some of the problem areas — a section of the south lake, as well as Missisquoi Bay — phosphorous loads are nearly double and triple, respectively, what they should be, as a result of runoff from sources such as farm fields, manure pits, streambed erosion and roads.

The result? Phosphorous fuels the growth of toxic and unsightly algae blooms that close beaches and threaten health — dogs have died from drinking the tainted water. Lake Champlain International executive director James Ehlers rattles off a list of potential problems as Vermont's water quality deteriorates, including lower property values, compromised drinking-water supplies, loss of local fisheries and decreased tourism.

Last week's hearing illustrated the challenges facing Vermont policy makers in the coming months: Everybody agrees about the need for clean water. How to clean up Lake Champlain is a much trickier question.

Legislators are trying to "be proactive," Rep. Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham) told the assembled farmers, about "what's coming at us from the EPA."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been a guiding force in Vermont's latest consideration of clean-water practices. That's because the EPA, in 2011, revoked Vermont's plan to manage the flow of nutrients and pollution into Lake Champlain after finding it inadequate. That plan is called the Total Maximum Daily Load — or TMDL.

Stephen Perkins, with the office of ecosystem protection in the regional EPA office, likens the TMDL to a caloric diet: The plan tallies up the amount of any given pollutant — phosphorous, in the case of Lake Champlain — that a body of water can absorb, then outlines a plan for keeping that amount in check.

But in Vermont's case, the state hasn't been sticking to its diet. The Conservation Law Foundation challenged the EPA in court in 2008, arguing that Vermont's former TMDL didn't satisfy federal Clean Water Act requirements. The EPA settled with CLF in 2011, and stepped in to oversee the drafting of a new TMDL. In the three years since, the state and the EPA have updated the science and collaborated on a new plan to tackle phosphorous pollution in the lake. H.586 would take some of the steps necessary to make that plan a reality.

"We have publicly applauded the scope and scale of the things that the state has put on the table," said the EPA's Perkins. "The tough news is, they're going to have to do all of that to get to the target. It's a big lift."

The specifics of H.586 are in flux, but the bill comes at water quality from a number of different angles: among them, agriculture, urban stormwater runoff, forestry and development. When it comes to farmers, lawmakers are considering, among other regulations: requiring small farms — not just medium and large ones — to be certified and registered with the Agency of Agriculture; mandatory fencing to keep livestock out of waterways; and participation in classes or other training about preventing runoff and wastewater discharge.

At the outset of last week's hearing, Partridge warned the farmers that H.586 was not set in stone; that rewrites were underway in Montpelier even as she spoke. But even with the bill's particulars up in the air, the farmers in Bridport were eager to weigh in.

"My issue with bill 586 is that ... the agricultural portion is regulating people," Wagner told the lawmakers. Drafting rules for farmers is inherently different, he argued, than making rules for bridges and roads. "You're trying to focus on issues that will affect peoples' livelihood, their way of life, and that needs to be taken into consideration."

A few themes popped up again and again. The farmers warned against "one size fits all" regulations, particularly when it comes to fencing designed to keep animals out of streams and rivers and buffers between cropland and waterways.

Several also warned that extending water-quality regulations to the smallest Vermont farms could put them out of business.

"You've regulated the large farms. You've regulated the medium farms. Yet the lake is getting worse," said Pittsford beef farmer David Mills, who expressed skepticism that yet another round of regulations would make a difference.

Others still looked upstream in frustration. What about erosion in mountain towns, which carries sediment down to the lake? What about urban development, or subdivisions cropping up — as one farmer mentioned — in places like Shelburne?

That's precisely the kind of thinking that frustrates Ehlers. He wasn't at the hearing on Thursday, but said later: "We have known about the phosphorous problem for 50-plus years, and we're still arguing about who is going to do what first."

Ehlers said Vermont farmers have already enjoyed decades of special treatment. "We've made exceptions for agriculture for generations, and then we scratch our head and wonder why Missisquoi Bay is a sewer pit," said Ehlers.

He's not pointing a finger just at farmers. All Vermonters need to get on board, he said, if they want to see a substantial improvement in Lake Champlain. The latest models from the EPA show that cropland accounts for roughly 35 percent of phosphorous pollution in Lake Champlain. The next largest contributors are stream bank erosion, at 22 percent, and developed land, at 13 percent.

Both the state's plan for meeting the TMDL and H.586 are a start, Ehlers said, but they lack vision and imagination. Thinking that "fencing some cows out of streams" will fix the problem, Ehlers said, is just nibbling around the edges of the issue. He wants to see regulators start with a blank page, and reimagine policy that would support what he calls a "clean-water economy."

On that point, at least, Ehlers and a few of the farmers on hand last week agreed.

"We've been cleaning up the lake ever since I've been here," said Shelburne beef farmer Jim Kleptz, a 42-year resident of the state, in his testimony. "Rinky dink" fixes, he said, aren't going to address the bigger problems. Depleted soils and more paved surfaces means the volume of water heading into Lake Champlain is that much greater; that water carries with it pollutants from fields, stream banks and roadways.

Lingering by the door after last Thursday's hearing, Kleptz shook his head in frustration. "They should just chuck the whole thing and start over again," he said.

On Wednesday, February 12, EPA officials from the regional office will meet with key Vermont lawmakers to discuss the TMDL, and the EPA's response to Vermont's proposed plan to clean up Lake Champlain.

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