… and now the hard work begins.

The next governor of Vermont will find a big turd in his or her punchbowl next January. The loaf was delivered this week, courtesy of the EPA: detailed new limits on phosphorus pollution in twelve discrete areas of Lake Champlain.

This is one of the most impactful political stories of the year, but it got scant coverage in our political media; only VTDigger and VPR produced articles, and both lacked a comprehensive assessment of the new rules’ impact. The EPA is now in charge of a cleanup that Vermont has ignored for decades, and is only now addressing because it was forced to by the federal courts.

Yes, good old green old Vermont has been smothering its crown jewel in nutrient runoff for decades. The problem has been ignored by all previous governors; Peter Shumlin has taken a few initial steps, but nothing that will come close to meeting the EPA’s targets.

The piddly $5 million real estate transfer tax the Legislature enacted in 2015 to great fanfare is a drop in the algae-befouled bucket. The cleanup cost will be in the hundreds of millions, and we will also have to impose tough new limits on discharges from farms, developments, roads, and municipal wastewater treatment systems.

The standards were accompanied by some kind words from EPA Region 1 administrator Curt Spaulding, clearly meant to soften the blow a bit:

“EPA commends Vermont for some cutting edge choices on how to tackle all significant sources of phosphorus and for all the implementation planning already in motion at the state and municipal level,” Spalding said. “Our action today does not mark the end of EPA’s involvement, but rather the beginning of the next phase..

That next phase will involve EPA looking over Vermont’s shoulder, making sure we don’t break our promises as we have done so often in the past. And that is likely to get quite uncomfortable. (Unless Donald Trump wins the election, in which case the EPA will probably send phosphorus-laden cargo planes over Champlain to dump even more nutrients into the lake.)

Agriculture, one of the sacred cows of Vermont politics, is the biggest contributor to Champlain’s nutrient load, and both farmers and politicians will face some tough new realities; VTDigger says “the EPA ruling will require significant changes to agricultural practices.”

Or worse.

Deborah Markowitz, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, said it’s not yet certain how much, if any, of Vermont’s agricultural land might need to be taken out of production to meet the new pollution limits.

Now there’s a kick in the wedding tackle. Closing down farms to meet the phosphorus-reduction targets? I can hardly wait.

Conservation Law Foundation attorney Elena Mihaly promised CLF would keep watch on the state’s efforts to craft a plan to meet EPA targets — which, she says, will require “really vigorous phosphorus reductions.” And CLF knows what it’s doing in this regard. It was the entity that brought the original lawsuit that led to EPA’s imposition of tough new standards.

And here’s something that residents of every part of Vermont outside the Champlain Valley should watch closely. The nutrient load comes almost entirely from the Vermont portion of the Champlain watershed. People in St. Johnsbury or White River Junction or Brattleboro or Bennington and all the towns in between contribute nothing to the fouling of Lake Champlain.

But the balance of power in the Legislature resides in the Champlain Valley. Chittenden, Franklin, Addison, and Rutland Counties have large and/or influential delegations. They will be pushing to spread the pain statewide, just as they did in 2015.

“The shared mantra, the shared understanding for this bill from the very beginning was, ‘everybody in.’ And in keeping with that, we’re saying ‘everybody contributes,’” says Addison Sen. Chris Bray, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.

Bray, whose constituency is part of the Lake Champlain problem, wielded his influence to spread the consequences to “everybody.” He made it sound noble, but in fact he was protecting his constituents from assuming their fair share of the burden.  Governor Shumlin’s original plan, which was quickly ashcanned in Bray’s committee, would have drawn revenue specifically from the Champlain Valley. Bray didn’t want that, and neither did his Valley compatriots.

Will he bring back his high-toned mantra in 2017? I sure wouldn’t be surprised. His county is in line for some tough medicine. It’d be surprising if he and his numerous Champlain Valley colleagues went along quietly.

The Legislature had a very hard time taking the first minimal step toward a better Champlain in 2015. Farmers complained, developers complained, cities and towns complained, and anti-tax lawmakers complained long and loud.

It’s gonna get a lot worse next year. The EPA ruling is a Big Biden Deal.

Watch this space.


5 thoughts on “… and now the hard work begins.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Another thing unmentioned in Digger and VPR: the impact on communities in Quebec. The nutrients wash across the border. Seven Days reported a couple years ago that during algae blooms, those towns not only lose access to their beaches, but their municipal water supplies.

      But hey, it’s only Canada, right?

  1. Tim Brahmstedt

    Hooray for Lake Champlain…. finally some action will have to be done.
    This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone….EPA has threatened this for a long time. Vermont just never took action.
    I don’t think the goal is to close down farms. Rather to stop using flood plain for agricultural crops. (Best practice). And initiate some common sense farming techniques.

  2. brucepost

    Tom Little provided a link to the political jurisdictions in the Champlain basin watershed. Watersheds and sources of TMDL cross political boundaries, and political jurisdiction maps do not reflect these sources per se. A more illustrative map can be found in the U.S. Geological Survey’s GAP Land Cover database. Here is a link to the Lake Champlain areas: http://gis1.usgs.gov/csas/gap/viewer/land_cover/PrintableMap.ashx?basemap=0&level=1&areaType=State&id=Vermont&extent=-8583883.796895152,5245554.451577125,-7596317.391450723,5691946.696762532&overlayOpacity=0.7000000000000001

    The green shading represents Forests & Woodland, which comprises 76.57% of Vermont’s land area. The cream-colored shading denotes Agricultural Vegetation, which is the second-largest amount of land cover at 14.26%. Notice that most of that land cover, and also the category for Developed & Other Human Uses, is located in the westernmost counties bordering the lake — Addison, Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle. This is where most of the problem resides, and I believe that those who gain the most “benefit” from land use practices that pollute Lake Champlain should bear a share of the costs proportional to the damage they do. When folks like Tom Torti speak about an ” All-In” solution, what they are really saying is that they want to “export” as much of the clean-up costs as possible to areas of the state that are much less complicit. It is sort of like the bankers on Wall Street: “Privatize the gains, but socialize the losses.”

    Also, take a look at the Adirondack region. Much more forest cover, which tends to act as a sponge in soaking up run-off. Ironically, New York embraced George Perkins Marsh’s warnings about preserving forests than did his home state of Vermont. Who’da thunk it?

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Actually, New York’s superior stewardship of Lake Champlain is mostly an accident of economics. The land between Champlain and the Adirondacks is unattractive for any purpose, from farming to development. It’s largely a forgotten backwater in the very large landscape of New York.

      The Adirondacks themselves are suitable for low-impact human uses like outdoor recreation, not for farming or industry. As far as I’m concerned, New York deserves no credit for not contributing to Lake Champlain’s sad state.


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