Vermont Senate eyes funding path to clean water

SHOREHAM — The Vermont Senate this week was set to take action on a bill that would lead to a funding scheme for the state’s share of an estimated $2.3 billion cleanup of the state’s waterways — including Lake Champlain.
Bill S.260 would create an eight-person study committee that would be asked, among other things, to consider a per-parcel fee to collect the more than $26 million in annual revenues over the next 20-plus years that is Vermont’s share of the federally mandated cleanup.
The state Senate was slated to debate and potentially vote on S.260 as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday afternoon. If the bill clears the Senate, it will move to the House.
“It’s been a long haul,” Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said during Monday’s legislative breakfast at Shoreham’s Platt Memorial Library.
Bray is chairman of the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee, which did a lot of work on S.260. Bray explained the bill offers a path to the key, missing ingredient for efforts to keep phosphorous and other pollutants out of Lake Champlain: Money.
State officials in 2015 approved the Clean Water Initiative (Act 64), aimed at addressing federal concerns about pollution in Vermont’s waterways. Federal authorities regularly call upon states to develop “Total Daily Maximum Load,” or TMDL, thresholds for their impaired waters. The TMDL identifies the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards.
Lawmakers have been virtually unanimous in their belief the state’s waterways need to be cleaned, but they have yet to agree on a funding mechanism. Individual lawmakers have sought to protect their respective constituencies as much as possible from the sticker shock. Business groups have lobbied against suggestions the commercial sector bear a larger burden. Farmers have also voiced concern about being targeted as a result of fertilizer-related runoff. And Gov. Phil Scott has made clear his disdain for any increases in broad-based taxes or fees.
Scott has expressed confidence the state will generate enough revenues to pay for the cleanup without imposing new fees or taxes. Bray and his colleagues hope Scott is correct, but they don’t want to see the cleanup placed in jeopardy if the governor’s optimism isn’t rewarded.
“We’re uncomfortable with the idea of waiting to see how (state) revenues turn out, because … it will actually be too late to start building a ‘Plan B’ next year,” Bray said. “As a prudent measure, we are planning ‘Plan B’ this year, and we do that by creating this working group.”
The committee members would be the chairs of House and Senate Appropriations, House and Senate Natural Resources, Senate Finance, and the House Ways and Means, or their designees, according to S.260.
It’s a group with a clear mission: Draft legislation by Nov. 15 that will lay out, among other things, a water quality financing plan that will have, as its centerpiece, a fee on each of the 360,000 parcels in the state of Vermont. Senate Natural Resources & Energy officials believe water quality affects everyone, and everyone in turn affects water quality, thereby validating the premise that everyone should pay for the cleanup effort.
“The per-parcel fee is a powerful tool, because you can ask a modest contribution of everybody and build a base of funding for our water quality work,” Bray said.
At the same time, officials want to make sure the water quality funding plan reflects a surcharge on parcels that generate the most pollution. Such parcels, for example, might contain impervious surfaces (such as parking lots) that promote pollution runoff into streams, rivers and lakes.
“It’s the runoff that mobilizes the pollutants that we’re dealing with,” Bray said.
State officials are currently mapping all of the impervious surfaces in Vermont, a project due to wrap up in 2020.
“When we have that data, we’ll be able to say, ‘If you have X amount of impervious surface, you add to the water quality challenge,’ and you would be assessed something on that base (per-parcel) fee,” Bray said.
S.260 gives lawmakers the ability to adjust the per-parcel fee based in the state’s revenue picture for fiscal year 2020.
“Once you have (the revenue mechanism) in place, you can turn the dial up or down,” Bray said. “If the state revenues are booming, great, you turn down the tax rate and we’ll be good to go.”
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, is a senior member of the House Agriculture & Forestry Committee. Smith, a longtime farmer, is pleased to see the state confront the pollution problem in a coordinated way.
“There’s no magic solution,” Smith said. “Everyone has to work together and be on the same page.”
Smith said the phosphorous problem can be traced back centuries, to a time when vast tracts  of forestland were cleared for homes and farming.
“There’s no black and white answer that’s out there, and I would like to say phosphorous began accumulating in our lake when Europeans began settling our area,” Smith said. “Phosphorous is in all of our soils, it’s all around us and it’s an essential element in our life cycle. We use it to grow our food and keep our bodies functioning properly.”
Farmers, Smith said, have acknowledged their responsibility in the cleanup process.
“Agriculture has really taken on a huge load in trying to solve this problem,” Smith said. “About 40 percent of the phosphorous going into the lake is directly attributed to agricultural activities, and they’ve agreed to clean up 50 percent of the phosphorous.”
“Agriculture is leading the charge, and they’ve been doing it since day one,” he added.
Every farmer has to have a nutrient management plan for every field on which he or she operates, he noted. These plans include periodic soil testing to guide farmers in their crop/phosphorous runoff management.
Since Act 64 became law, Vermont farmers have developed a combined total of 46,200 new nutrient management plans for their respective properties, according to Smith.
Bray believes such planning will serve the state well during the coming years. It is critical that Vermont remain aggressive in its water cleanup efforts, he said.
“There is that sobering reality that it’s a big problem and it’s going to take a lot of work, that we’ll have to make a big investment and we’re going to have to do it for the rest of the lives of everyone in this room,” Bray said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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