Editorial: Of sacred cows and runoff

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross had to know that the farming community would take issue when the governor proposed in his Inaugural address to make changes to the state’s Current Use tax program that would penalize farmers who pollute waterways. What they also had to suppose was that the majority of Vermonters would not think it was unfair for farmers to be willing to accept a share of the responsibility for cleaning up the state’s waterways, particularly those that run into Lake Champlain.
Farm pollution, after all, is a significant cause of the worst examples of pollution along the shores of Lake Champlain, particularly concerning the algae blooms common in St. Albans Bay and other areas of the lake. Residential and commercial run-off is also a large concern, as are municipal sewage and water treatment facilities.
What Gov. Shumlin and Secretary Ross hope is that each sector will be willing to make noticeable efforts to improve the status quo. Not making progress, they know, is not an option.
Why? Because the federal EPA is cracking down on the state, and if state policy doesn’t adequately address the problem, then the EPA will impose improvements to the lake’s water quality with the only tools they have — and the primary one is making municipalities improve existing municipal treatment plants. As the governor has emphasized before, that’s wielding a 100-pound sledgehammer to solve an ounce-size problem. Or, specifically, the expense to renovate municipal plants would be extremely costly, while those plants only contribute about 3 percent of the pollution into the lake.
That same amount of money could be spent far more productively, says the administration, by attacking other aspects of the problem that contribute far greater amounts of pollution. Eliminating or reducing farm run-off is one of them.
For the most part, farmers agree and are more than willing to do their fair share, even as some take offense at the governor’s tactics of threatening changes in the popular Current Use Program. The vast majority of farmers already are in compliance with EPA guidelines that curb farm run-off into waterways. But there are the rare few who need some prodding.
As Ross stressed in a recent interview on the matter (see Page 1A), the proposed changes would only be used for the very few farmers who refused to comply with EPA regulations.
“We thought it made sense that for someone who has been provided due process for a violation, and can’t comply with the rules, therefore imposing costs on the rest of us, that they wouldn’t also receive tax benefits,” Ross said.
That’s a perfectly logical proposition. If a landowner receives a tax benefit by operating farmland, but tempts federal penalties to the entire state because of a failure to comply with regulations, then the state tax credits should not be provided. The same provision already applies to foresters and the land on which they operate.
Bill Moore, the Vermont Farm Bureau’s legislative director, agrees with the governor’s focus on cleaning up the state’s waterways and agrees the agricultural sector needs to be part of the solution, but he objects to placing the Current Use Program in the crosshairs as a policy tool. As importantly, he objected to extemporaneous comments the governor later made in which he alluded to the Current Use Program as a “subsidy” to farmers. Those are fighting words, Moore said, and he has a point, but it is fundamentally beside the issue, which should be to help all farmers come into compliance with EPA regulations.
Importantly, the governor and his administration have done a good job enticing federal grants, donations and state funds to address the problem and mitigate the financial burden compliance may require. What the EPA wants to see is the state actively engaging all sectors of the problem with solutions that break from the status quo and demonstrate the state is serious about making progress.
There may be better ways to send that message to federal officials in terms of curbing farm run-off, but maintaining the status quo is probably not one of them.
Angelo S. Lynn

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