Editorial: The tie between 13 million gallons of wastewater, the lake, and statewide elections

Vermonters are at the fleeting confluence of two intersecting trajectories: an upcoming statewide election in November, and the tag end of August with another rash of beach closings on Lake Champlain, sewage spills, and blue-green algae alerts. With beachgoers upset, boaters disgusted and lakeshore homeowners up in arms at the deterioration of water quality in Lake Champlain and other bodies of water in the state, you’d think there might be enough political pressure to push clean-water policy to the forefront of our political discussion — especially in an election year.
But it hasn’t.
Sure, avid news junkies know of the wastewater treatment spills into the Lake Champlain Basin. We know that Rutland takes top honors so far this year with 66 spills dumping an estimated 11,562,700 gallons of wastewater into the Otter Creek basin since Jan. 1; that Montpelier is second with 8 spills (and possibly far more that were not reported), while Vergennes is third with 7 spills and 447,200 gallons dumped into the creek. Middlebury is back in the pack (8th) with only two spills and an estimated 11,000 gallons dumped into the Otter Creek. And we know that if you added all of the reported 103 spills into the Lake Champlain Basin so far this year, you’d see that 13,547,200 gallons of wastewater were dumped from town and city wastewater treatment plants into our streams and rivers that lead into Lake Champlain.
So why doesn’t the state take more aggressive action against municipalities that are dumping their waste downstream? If the state is taking an aggressive posture to clean up the lake by passing laws that put the onus on farmers to clean up their act  and the Legislature did pass the Clean Water Initiative (Act 64) this past session — why not equal pressure on cleaning up what should be a given: fixing the worst wastewater treatment plants so that we don’t continue to make matters worse?
Part of the answer lies in the transitory nature of the problem. Beach closings happen over a two-month period each summer, and then are all too quickly forgotten as schools re-open, water temperatures cool, and people stop frequently the lakes. By mid-October, water quality in Lake Champlain is an after-thought as more pressing problems dominate the political headlines.
And part of the answer lies in the fact that the wastewater treatment spills — bad as they are — are a small fraction of the larger problem. Less than 5 percent of phosphorous loading into the Otter Creek Basin, for example, comes from wastewater treatment plants, while 43 percent comes from cropland, 19 percent comes from the erosion of stream banks, 14 percent comes from forestlands, 12 percent from developed properties, and a few percent from back roads and farmsteads. The problem of wastewater spills is only slightly higher (6 percent) in the Winooski River and St. Albans Bay basins.
And, yet, if our municipalities won’t make the first move to correct the problem, why expect others (mainly farmers and commercial developments) to lead the way? And in its enforcement of Act 64, what role can we expect from the Department of Environmental Conservation? How will it get the worst municipal offenders to take steps to fix what is — at base — inadequate infrastructure due to a town’s lack of re-investment; that is, they didn’t want to raise municipal taxes, so instead are dumping their waste downstream. What mayor, what state representative, what state leader will point their fingers at such irresponsibility and find ways (low-interest loans, perhaps) these municipalities can build adequate facilities or face sufficient consequences?
It’s also important to put the value of clean water in perspective. It is no exaggeration that without clean water, the state’s economy would take a financial hit; with cleaner water the state’s economy would see a significant boost.
According to a Feb. 2016 report financed by The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College that analyzed the economic worth of Lake Champlain, the analysis found the lake is currently worth roughly $580 million annually — as an economic driver. That could increase to at least $763 million annually with a cleanup. The potential losses due to pollution in Lake Champlain, assuming a one-meter water clarity decrease, could total at least $177 million. This includes an annual loss of $18 million, as well as a $159 million decrease in seasonal property value.
It’s also important to recall that the recently passed Clean Water Initiative calls for an investment of $156 million per year for 10 years starting in 2016. And one further point: back in 2012-2013, community surveys and stakeholder groups named “funding for water and wastewater infrastructure” as the top priority to strengthen Vermont communities and the state’s economy. Those stakeholders realized that without adequate municipal infrastructure, their ability to grow is severely limited. It is, then, a problem long in the making.
What can we do? With 10 more weeks to go before the November elections, candidates from state representatives to the governor’s race should be asked to develop clear plans to clean up the lake and our river basins — town by town, river basin by river basin — and then tell us how they are going to fund their plan. And let’s make it a perennial issue until we get it right. As voters, we can ensure that every candidate is prepared to answer those questions and know how important the issue is to their constituents.
We should also take heart. The good news is that this is something we, as a state and as residents, can do. We can stop soiling our rivers and streams. And unlike global warming, where we have such a small role to play in a worldwide problem, cleaning up our lakes and streams is a local choice with local results. If we stop polluting, we will see cleaner water and our children and grandchildren will be grateful. We simply have to make that choice.
Angelo S. Lynn

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