When is a law not a law? The sponsor responds

A couple days ago I wrote about the saga of Act 86, which requires constant monitoring of Lake Champlain for blue-green algae blooms, but actually accomplishes nothing in the real world.

Well, I’ve talked with one of those responsible for the law, and here’s what I learned.

First, Act 86 was not a stand-alone pice of legislation, which you wouldn’t know from reading VPR’s report on it.

“The bill itself has two parts,” explains Rep. Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes). “The first addresses CSO’s [combined sewer overflows], and the second, cyanobacteria [blue-green algae].”

Lanpher was chief sponsor of H.674, the CSO bill; Rep. Kathleen Keenan (D-St. Albans) was chief sponsor of Act 86, the algae piece. Both measures addressed public notification of water quality problems, so they decided to combine the measures into a single bill.

While Act 86 has had little practical effect, H.674 has been highly impactful, turning an unforgiving spotlight on troublesome municipal wastewater systems.

Act 86 is basically a paper tiger. The Health Department has an online tracker map of algae outbreaks, but the effort is entirely staffed by volunteers who check their locations once a week. Still, Lanpher argues that there’s value in simply keeping the issue alive and the conversation going.

“I can’t say we’ll have eyes on the entire lake 24/7,” Lanpher acknowledges. “This isn’t the end-all, be-all, but the question remains: what are we willing to do. Do you want this to be a priority? Are you willing to spend money?

“Meantime, we need to educate the public about water quality issues. Vermonters are so used to a pristine environment that they think they don’t have to take precautions.”

Is that enough to justify a piece of legislation? For a lawmaker, different bills can serve different purposes. It can right a wrong, prevent an abuse, or shine a light in a dark corner. And no bill is the final word; it’s another step on the journey. For Lanpher, Act 86 was a small step, but a step nonetheless. If it does nothing more than keep the issue alive and moving forward, maybe that’s enough.

As Lanpher noted in closing, “If we hadn’t passed the bill, would we be having this conversation right now?”

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