To Governor-Elect Scott: Make Lake Champlain great again

This week’s writer is James Ehlers, a public policy expert with 18 years of experience in health, water and fisheries issues, and executive director ofLake Champlain International.
Governor-Elect Scott: Making Champlain Great Again
In one month’s time, state Treasurer Beth Pearce will present the new governor with a wonderful opportunity to enhance the quality of our lives and develop our economy. At that time, she will unveil her comprehensive analysis for all the different ways we can invest in Vermont’s rivers, lakes, ponds and even downtowns.
This investment is considered critical if Vermont is to have swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters now and in the future. It is so critical, that Pearce and her team, along with experts at the Department of Taxes, Agency of Natural Resources, and Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, spent the better part of this past year examining 70-plus revenue sources and their potential for covering that investment necessary to form the basis for a clean-water economy.
A clean-water economy is an economy predicated on protecting beaches, drinking water, fisheries and groundwater, rather than the current economy, where polluters profit at our expense. Thankfully, Governor-elect Phil Scott campaigned on “building a stronger economy,” and in his “core principles for economic growth,” he pledged to set “clear budget priorities and make smart investments.”
The water sector certainly is in need of prioritization, and investment could not come soon enough, given the $68 million deficit we have amassed by failing to adequately invest in our communities.
The pollution of Lake Champlain and other waters hasn’t led only to public health issues and environmental contamination. It has led straight to economic decline. The Agency of Commerce and Community Development declared in June 2014, “Inadequate, aging and failing wastewater and stormwater infrastructure is the principal barrier to reaching a host of state and local goals, from building more housing for all income levels, to revitalizing communities, to protecting the environment. For Vermont communities to thrive and grow, this issue must be addressed.”
It is somewhat confounding then that our new governor, with his demonstrated commitment to the economy, has no apparent plan to address the economic crisis that is Vermont’s poisoned and polluted waters. His campaign deftly avoided the topic of water pollution and its associated toll, not to mention the decaying infrastructure issue. And just last week, in a story reported by Vermont Public Radio, Scott seemed to be relying on federal regulators to “ease up” on Vermont. He was hoping, it would appear, that the Environmental Protection Agency would not enforce the law. After all, President-elect Donald Trump has little regard for the environmental protection work of the EPA, even going so far as to call for its dissolution. For Vermonters already suffering property value losses, business revenue losses and health impacts, this is outlandish.
VPR’s Pete Hirschfeld went on to report that Mr. Scott said, “he won’t abide passage of any new revenue increases in 2017.” And he says he hopes Vermont “won’t need any.” It’s our mess, and we should clean it up. Expecting tax payers from other states to pay to clean up our pollution does not seem very, well, Republican.
Further, Mr. Scott, hope is not a plan. If a race car is to compete, it needs a powerful, well-running engine. And engines cost money. The economic engine that is Lake Champlain, the engine that is our tourist economy, they need to be overhauled. And that requires investment.
Before even taking office, Scott has declared he will not consider investing in our communities and their water needs. How is it that literally hundreds of experts agree on the need for state investment to ensure swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters, and Scott pins his success, and the future of our communities, on hoping we won’t need any revenues?
I realize hope is not a plan, but I am still hoping. Scott’s position was misconstrued by Hirschfeld. There is no way a man with Scott’s commitment to the economy could dismiss the boom in Vermont jobs that public investment in our downtowns, rural communities and waters would create — for those running the shovels to those running the boardrooms.
Vermonters support investment in our rivers, lakes, ponds, beaches and drinking water. We are frugal, but we are not foolish. The Agency of Commerce and Community Development reports: Community surveys and stakeholder groups that were convened in 2012 and 2013 named “funding for water and wastewater infrastructure” as the top priority to strengthen Vermont communities and the state’s economy. Indeed, without addressing the many issues surrounding water quality, runoff and availability, construction and growth in Vermont will be limited and our natural resources — so key to our brand and the industries such as tourism that rely on clean water and lakes — will be negatively affected.
The University of Vermont found “Vermonters rank water quality as a top public policy priority and are willing to pay to improve the health of Vermont’s waterways,” according to survey data published in a report by the Vermont EPSCoR Adaptation to Climate Change in the Lake Champlain Basin (RACC) project. More than 95 percent of respondents ranked water quality as either “moderately important” or “very important,” a higher percentage than for all other public issues in the survey, including preserving the working landscape and economic development.
There is nothing affordable about decaying communities, poisoned drinking water, toxic beaches and declining fisheries. Permitting pollution to proliferate is going to make neither America nor Lake Champlain great again. Smart investment, however, will keep the engine humming — creating jobs and cleaning up polluted waters.
I urge the governor-elect to seriously reconsider from whom he is taking his advice on this issue. We need your protection; the lake needs your protection. Vermonters overwhelmingly support investment in the restoration and protection of our public waters, and we will not tolerate the D.C. swamp overtaking Lake Champlain, neither figuratively nor literally. On this we are united. Won’t you join Sen. Patrick Leahy and countless other Vermonters in working to keep Lake Champlain great?

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