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Legislative Review: Clean water investments vital

Sen. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, represents Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore and serves as chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. He is the lead sponsor of S.260.
For the second year in a row, the Vermont legislature is building the budgets and laws to deliver the strongest, best-funded water quality program in the state’s history. This increased level of work is essential. While the well-publicized disaster of toxic blooms that closed Lake Carmi for three months are an obvious cause for alarm and action, hundreds of less dramatic water quality failures are affecting every county in the state.
The current enhanced level of clean water investment relies on temporarily doubling our use of capital dollars for this work. These extra capital dollars will no longer be available beginning in fiscal year 2020 (FY20). If we make no other adjustments, there will be a fall-off in clean water funds of approximately $17.5 million in FY20. Such a diminution of funds and work would run afoul of our legal obligations to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and to Vermonters who want all state waters to be safe for drinking and recreation.
The $17.5 million potential funding gap needs to be addressed now in order to ensure we are logistically and financially capable of continuing the state’s required clean water work in FY20 and beyond. The Scott Administration offered testimony stating it believes that organic growth in the state’s economy will generate increased state revenue sufficient to fill this gap. The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee was unanimous in its hope to see such growth, but as such growth is speculative, and as the budget faces other pressures (e.g. pension obligations, and growing health care costs), we concluded that fiscal prudence demands we develop a “Plan B,” which is what Vermont Senate Bill S.260 provides.
S.260 addresses the anticipated funding gap by mapping out one or more future revenue sources, including a per-parcel fee. The principles guiding this work are (1) “polluters should pay to clean up the damage they cause,” and (2) “everybody in/everybody pays.”
The funding plans will be prepared as draft legislation by both the legislature and the Administration on or before Nov. 15, 2018, so that timely legislation can be introduced on the opening day of the next biennium.
If the Administration’s anticipated new revenues materialize, S.260 will have been precautionary; if the anticipated new revenues do not materialize, S.260 will provide a fully formed legislative mechanism for consideration for adoption by the next legislature in order to fulfill the state’s ongoing legal obligations for clean water.
S.260 tackles more than clean water funding, it also makes changes to enhance the quality and efficiency of our clean water work by:
(1) expanding the Water Quality Board to add more people with expertise in water quality science and engineering;
(2) creating a “living laboratory” at Lake Carmi, where we will deploy all of our best tools for watershed management while also experimenting with new techniques;
(3) offering new legal tools to assist in the enforcement of existing water quality rules; and
(4) developing a suite of “Future of Farming” practices, including improved soil health, to get at the root cause of our agricultural water quality problems, rather than spend so much time, money and effort mitigating and managing already polluted waters.
All in all, S.260 creates a pathway to sustainable long-term funding and better practices throughout Vermont — from farms and forests to towns and cities — to meet Vermont’s legal obligations to clean up and maintain the waters of the state. The time is now to commit to this balanced, carefully constructed pathway and, in so doing, to live up to our role as stewards of the land for ourselves and future generations.

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