Opinion: Suggestions offered in shorelands protection debate

Editor’s note: This is an open letter to the Vermont Lake Shoreland commissioners.
I am writing as a citizen of Vermont who has spent his life on Vermont waterways. I grew up on the Battenkill River and went to summer camp on Lake Sunset in Benson. I have swum and canoed in lakes from Somerset Reservoir to Lake Memphremagog. I have worked on Lake Champlain for 20 years and am now the coordinator of citizen-science river monitoring program.
There is no doubt that Vermont needs to improve its methods for protecting lake shorelines in our state. Water quality is one of our jewels, and we must protect it. We have been lax in this area, compared to Maine, New Hampshire and other nearby states.
Instead of a level of regulation that is determined, promulgated, and enforced at the outset by the state (an expensive proposition in these lean times), I propose that the state of Vermont establish a Lake Association Empowerment Program. It would offer goals, guidelines, and grants to lake associations such that they would find it advantageous to ensure that landowners in their watersheds practice land stewardship that benefits water quality. If the lake associations are unsuccessful at meeting given goals, the state would impose rules.
There are many lakes in the Northeast that have protected their shorelines and watersheds through means other than state regulation. It is my belief that, although some increase in Vermont state regulation may be necessary, current lawmaking efforts in this state should focus first on giving lake associations strong incentives (including monetary ones) to monitor, manage and police water management and land use such that landowners in their watersheds agree to uphold standards that will preserve water quality.
The Federal Clean Water Act grants to states and tribes the ability to meet water quality standards in their own ways. Only when states fail to set or meet their own standards does the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency step in to bolster programs to improve water quality. This model has proven largely effective. I believe the state of Vermont would save money and would increase local ownership of water quality management if it established a similar regulatory structure. Why not give lake associations clear goals, guidelines and grants, and a timeline in which to meet certain categories of land stewardship within their watersheds?
Numeric criteria such as construction setbacks, buffer zones, and square acreage of impervious surface could be left up to the lake associations. However, they would need to have something to show for the grants they receive: They would need to establish monitoring, aquatic invasive controls, fertilizer/herbicide controls, buffer incentives, setback regulations, etc. They would need to demonstrate that on-the-ground management measures are being put in place. The grants they receive would depend partly on matching funds that they would garner from local businesses, lake association members, and other nonprofits.
If, after a given period of time, maybe five years, they have not put these programs in place, then state law would dictate that the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources would establish its own water quality program in the lake’s watershed. At that point, the state would promulgate numeric objectives that the townships within the watershed would be required to meet. For efficiency’s sake at the state level, these requirements would probably not be as flexible as locally generated requirements, nor as well tailored to the unique circumstances of each lake.
My guess is that, in most cases, existing lake associations (and we have many in Vermont) or newly formed ones would step up vigorously to the plate to take advantage of modest grants and also the opportunity to decide their own scheme for preserving and maybe even improving their precious lake’s water quality.
For small water bodies such as ponds or lakes that are within one town’s borders, there could be a special permit established for low-cost yet effective programs that could be taken on by the town’s conservation commission.
Matthew Witten

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