Legislative Report 4/24/2014 - Focusing on Water Quality

For more than two decades Vermont has worked to clean up its lakes, streams and rivers with various degrees of success.  Gone are the days when sewage and industrial effluents were discharged directly into streams and rivers.  Yet we still have much further to go to prevent conditions that lead to toxic algae blooms in lakes and ponds and to high nitrogen levels in the Connecticut River that result in oxygen depleted dead zones in Long Island Sound. 

One measure of water quality is the amount of nutrients, i.e. phosphates and nitrogen compounds, in a body of water that contribute to algae growth.  Limits on these nutrients are set by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that water quality is maintained at an acceptable level.  This limit is called the total maximum daily load, or TMDL. Despite the state’s reaching one-third of the TMDL goal in less than 10 years, the EPA revoked approval of the initial TMDL plan for Lake Champlain in 2011 because of ongoing problems such as the algae blooms.  Vermont had until the end of March this year to submit a new plan, and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation did so. 

The VDEC issued a report documenting the sources of the nutrients flowing into Lake Champlain.  The report showed that about 3% of the nutrients are coming from municipal sewage treatment facilities, about 10% from impervious surfaces such as roads and parking lots, another 10% from developed land, about 20% from river and streambank erosion during significant storm events, and about 40% from agricultural operations.  VDEC proposed a 20 year implementation plan with an estimated cost of $150M.  In order to accomplish these goals, legislative action is also needed.

Last week the House passed H.586 to address improving the quality of the state’s waters in a comprehensive manner.  Much of the responsibility and cost for meeting the new EPA TMDL may fall on Vermont’s farmers, who likely will be subject to additional requirements under the accepted agricultural practices (AAPs) and other agricultural water quality rules.  Although the AAP rules were adopted in 1995, the legislature found a general lack of awareness in the “small farm” community about the AAPs.  The bill directs the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to educate small farm operators in the State about the requirements of the AAPs.  This will include identifying cost-effective strategies, best management practices and conservation practices of cover cropping, grassed waterways, manure drag lines and injection, no-till production, and contour plowing.  It also establishes a small farm certification program to ensure compliance with AAPs.

While additional state and federal assistance is necessary to help bring farms into compliance, including technical and financial assistance to encourage small farms to adopt and implement nutrient management plans, funding mechanisms were removed from the bill by amendments proposed by the Ways and Means committee.  A quarter percent increase in the Rooms and Meals tax and a one percent increase on the automobile rental tax were stripped from the bill that came out of the Fish Wildlife and Water Resources committee.  The bill now recommends establishing financing mechanisms between now and January 15, 2015, to implement the provisions of the bill.

The bill is now in the hands of the Senate.  Like the Shorelands Protection bill, H.526, which passed the House last year, was modified by the Senate and sent to a conference committee to work out the differences, H.586 is likely to be amended before final passage.  If differences cannot be worked out before the end of the session in May, the bill will die and will have to be reintroduced next year as a new bill.  In the meantime, nutrients will continue to flow into Lake Champlain and we will continue to see toxic algae blooms.

On a lighter note, the Charlotte Whale has a new companion.  The Charlotte Whale was designated as the State Fossil in 1993 and is housed at the Perkins Geology Museum at UVM.  A bill passed last week redesignated the Charlotte Whale as the State “Marine” Fossil and named the Mount Holly Wooly Mammoth as the State “Terrestrial” Fossil.  The Mammoth is on display at the Mount Holly Historical Society Museum.