Opinion: Bipartisan support for clean water from an unlikely place — Washington, D.C.
This week’s Community Forum is by Zach Cockrum, Northeast Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation and Brian Shupe, Executive Director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
For anyone paying attention to Congress, it would be a significant understatement to say it has not exactly been a pillar of bipartisan cooperation and common-sense deal making the last few years. That is especially the case on environmental issues, where the Trump administration and a majority in Congress have fought tooth and nail to undermine bedrock environmental protections for clean air, water, land and wildlife.
Yet, an appropriations bill passed last week with bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress stands out as a clear lesson that the ability for our elected officials to sit down and craft common sense policy that benefits the environment still exists, and we think Vermont’s elected officials — most importantly Governor Scott — can learn from this example.
Despite all of the rhetoric and political blustering, when congressional leaders including Vermont’s Senator Leahy, the Vice Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, sat down behind closed doors to negotiate funding the government, environmental protection and restoration fared quite well. Despite President Trump’s call for slashing the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by up to a third, Senator Leahy stood up for Vermont values and made sure that funding for this critical agency remained level.
The bill also fixed a longstanding problem where increasingly severe forest fires were devastating the Forest Service’s budget, creating massive shortfalls that were cannibalizing much-needed conservation programs. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used to acquire conservation properties from willing landowners, saw its first increase in years. Importantly, thanks in large part to Senator Leahy’s efforts, this must-pass bill avoided having any policy “riders” attached to it that would have negatively impacted air and water and had been attached by the anti-environment Republicans to many previous spending bills.
Directly relevant to Vermont, Senator Leahy managed to boost funding for federal programs that will help with required cleanup of the Lake Champlain watershed. Funding for the Lake Champlain program within the EPA nearly doubled to $8.3 million, $5 million was dedicated to funding fisheries improvements in the lake, and a research program at the University of Vermont funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be getting an increase.
Senator Leahy’s leadership was also critical to preventing cuts to farm bill conservation programs for the first time in a decade, increasing funding for landowner technical assistance, and reducing barriers for farmers to utilize conservation assistance by eliminating unnecessary grant compliance requirements.
All of these funding increases will be helpful in cleaning up Lake Champlain, although it is not a substitute for the important role that the state must play in this effort. And while we commend Senator Leahy for advocating for Vermont and the lake, final passage of this funding required bipartisan co-operation the likes of which we have not seen in Washington in years. Unfortunately, that stands in stark contrast to recent developments for the state of Vermont to contribute its fair share of the funding to clean up the lake and its watershed.
Competing bills in the Vermont General Assembly were debated this week, including the Senate unanimously passing S. 260 which would simply require (another) study to identify potential funding sources for clean water improvements. Yet, Governor Scott remains opposed to even this simple study requirement, let alone raising the funds needed to actually accomplish our goals.
With the good news about federal funding, federal players like the Environmental Protection Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service remain ready to help restore our waters, work with landowners and farmers, and do necessary water quality research. Local watershed groups and conservation organizations are already doing their part to help plant trees on stream
banks and improve local rivers and streams. In order to keep building on this work, though, the State of Vermont absolutely must do its part, and that requires finding a permanent funding solution.
Vermont is well known for its ability to work across the aisle to achieve common-sense goals that reflect community values. And we’re undoubtedly infamous for our environmental quality, which is why so many tourists visit our incredible state. It is not often that we would point to the notoriously dysfunctional and staunchly anti-environment U.S. Congress and ask our state to learn lessons, but today that is exactly what we are calling for. Our leaders, including Governor Scott, must take a cue from Washington and find ways to fund the Lake Champlain cleanup.
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