Spotlight on the Vermont Senate race: How would you address water-quality issues?

The six candidates for the Senate seats representing Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore were asked to comment on five important issues.
Today, for the second issue, we asked each of the six local candidates for the Vermont Senate to address water quality with the following prompt:
Several years ago, the EPA gave Vermont the option of coming up with its own plan to clean up the Lake Champlain water basin, or they would impose their own solution on the state. The Legislature took that demand seriously and came up with several ideas, though no plan was passed to raise adequate funding. If you are elected to the Senate, would you take the EPA’s demand seriously? If you believe that it’s necessary to improve the water quality, what specific measures would you support and how would you fund those initiatives? What would you do to help farmers further address the phosphorus coming off their farms, and how would you address run-off from cities/developed properties, municipal water treatment plants, forests and other natural sources? How would you pay for your plans? Write 350-500 words.
Marie Audet — Independent
It’s been said that what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. That is, if we become disconnected from protecting our water, which we depend on to survive, we are only hurting ourselves. Vermont farmers who care for our natural resources know this best. Chuck Ross, Director of UVM Extension, often says, “We don’t get to water quality without agriculture.”
I support the EPA’s plan for guiding how much phosphorus can go into the lake for it to be healthy — called the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The EPA found that agriculture has been the greatest contributor of phosphorus to Lake Chaplain at 41 percent. In the last two years, as a dairy farmer, I’ve seen firsthand that agriculture is the biggest and most economically feasible way to reduce phosphorus going into the lake. Estimates are by as much as 60 percent. Phosphorus reduction from agricultural land also costs 44 times less than improvements to developed land practices. Bigger returns with a smaller investment — it’s a no brainer.
I also support the pathway to achieve this drastic reduction that was legislated in 2016, called the Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs). These RAPs are the most robust laws and rules in the country. Following the RAPs is not optional. It is a requirement for all farms no matter the size or type, and the state is the regulatory authority for enforcement. Farmers need more support in implementing these practices — like planting crops on fields all year long to prevent erosion of soil in the winter and spring. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and UVM Extension have reported that farmers have increased winter cover crops by more than 60 percent since 2015 and conserved more than 150 tons of nutrients in the soil just last year, but we can do more. Recently, on our farm, we’ve invested in equipment that plants seeds without tilling, thereby reducing erosion and carbon emissions from soil, as well as a manure application system that prevents run-off.
The EPA is monitoring the progress of agriculture and other sectors with annual assessments. Last April, the EPA reported that the Agency of Agriculture met all its milestones. Yet, we know that legacy phosphorus in the lake from practices decades ago will not disappear overnight. We are steadfast on our mission. We have the needed funding through 2021. I will work to find creative ways to fund this work for 2022 forward.
What about other ways phosphorus gets into the lake? Streambank erosion makes up 21 percent, developed land is 18 percent, forests are 16 percent, and waste water treatment facilities are 4 percent. Regular reports of discharges from waste water treatment plants are alarming. Unlike agriculture, it is legal and within their permits. There is no doubt that it needs to be fixed. Yet, in this critical time, what improvements will give us the biggest return on our investment? The answer lies in investing in improvements to the state’s thousands of acres of agricultural land. As a Vermont Senator, alongside Paul Ralston, I will strongly encourage our fellow elected leaders to find innovative solutions that will have the greatest, most cost effective impact to improve our lake.
Christopher Bray — Democrat
In 2015, the Vermont General Assembly passed the Vermont Clean Water Act (VCWA). As Chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, I was responsible for the Senate’s work on this comprehensive blueprint for protecting and cleaning up all the waters of the state. In Vermont, water is held “in the public trust,” meaning it is owned by all of us in common. Every citizen has the right to expect clean water, and likewise, every citizen has an obligation to do their part in protecting and cleaning up our waters.
As we developed the VCWA, the theme was “Everybody In.” And as I walked that bill from Senate Natural Resources down to Senate Finance, I revised that theme — with the broad support of others — to “Everybody In. Everybody Pays.”
This obligation to protect and clean up our waters resides in both state and federal law. Beyond the law, I believe that this work is our moral obligation: we have been “gifted” a beautiful natural environment upon which all living things depend, and in our lifetimes, we have a stewardship duty to protect it.
Let us acknowledge, as did the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources this past spring, that in Vermont “our water quality generally continues to decline.” We can and must do better. And we can and must fund a program adequate to turn around our water quality problems.
If re-elected, I will again introduce a bill to raise the necessary dollars based on the “everybody in, everybody pays” philosophy. My proposal last year raised $14.4 million by asking the owners of each parcel of land to pay approximately 10 cents per day. This creates a strong, broad-base revenue for our water quality work. I hope others bring alternative proposals; I will carefully review each with an open mind. A categorical “no new fees” will not solve the very real and present task we are confronting.
Given adequate funding, how do we spend the money well?
Over the last three years, we have developed detailed plans for improving water quality based on science — tailoring our work to reflect the sources of pollution, region by region. Here in Addison County, 53 percent of the phosphorus that helps create algae blooms and grow weeds like milfoil comes from agricultural land; therefore, our largest clean-up efforts will be farm-based. We also need to address the other major sources (in declining order: forest land, stream banks, developed land, and wastewater treatment plants). When we turn our focus to other pollutants, such as the bacteria E. coli, found in fecal matter, then the science tells us to shift our focus to storm water and waste water treatment plants.
Regardless of the pollutant, we must use science to measure the sources of pollutants and their impacts on water quality; then we must prioritize our clean-up work to make the most progress as quickly as possible by selecting the most cost-effective projects first. This is precisely what we are doing now.
We must commit to this essential work, which when rightly viewed, is a decades-long infrastructure investment that will pay dividends in tourism, health, and quality of life.
Peter Briggs — Republican
I am serious about lake cleanup and the water quality improvements that will be required. There is not good data on how well things are working (as a recent Douglas Hoffer audit (May 21, 2018 / Rpt. No. 18-03) pointed out (read it here), but I believe there are things that need to be done such as increasing phosphorus removal from municipalities, stabilizing stream banks and preventing runoff, increasing soil fertility and removing phosphorous from Lake Champlain.
Algae holds great potential to extract phosphorous from effluent and combining water reuse technology (like that being developed in Israel) would reduce the amount and the cost of processing municipal sewage. I support using existing funds for pilot projects for such technologies at municipal treatment plants.
The sediment eroded from our Addison County stream banks is often high in phosphorus and is destined to end up in the lake. Protecting stream banks is important. Increasing the fertility of soil is paramount to reduce the phosphorous levels of runoff. Soil microbes die in water-logged fields. Tile drainage is a must to increase water quality. Combined with irrigation to keep crops and microbes growing and healthy, tile drainage dramatically increases the ability of farm fields to make use of available phosphorous. Farmers bear the costs of tile drainage and irrigation.
Removing phosphorous from the lake is an enormous challenge. Agriculture is necessary to use the phosphorus mined out of the lake, a must if we are going to see any impact in our lifetimes. The mining of the lake can be done by dredging, algae harvesting and floating gardens. I support using existing funds for pilot projects for phosphorous removal.
Dredged slurry can be pumped ashore and processed into topsoil that will boost the fertility of the fields it is put on.
Algae when left to die and rot in the lake contributes to the problem as when it rots, it releases nutrients to continue the cycle and adds to the sludge settling at the bottom of the shallow bays where algae blooms occur. Harvesting the algae would solve this problem and provide a valuable product that will have many uses, not the least of which is oil and energy.
Floating gardens will provide an opportunity for the young people that want to move to Vermont to farm, (crucial to replacing the aging farm demographic). I attended a workshop on this issue just this week in Starksboro. Besides the nutrient uptake from the crops, the gardens will provide shading in the shallow waters that will prove useful as Cyanobacteria (Blue Green Algae) is highly dependent on sunlight and cannot survive without it.
Ruth Hardy — Democrat
Vermont’s waterways are crucial to the well-being of our state and its residents. Clean water promotes personal health, economic vitality, agriculture and forestry initiatives, recreation opportunities, and important wildlife habitats. I take the challenge of cleaning up Lake Champlain and other waterways seriously because doing so is vital to the future of Vermont.
The EPA has required Vermont to reduce its total maximum daily load (TMDL) of phosphorus into the Lake Champlain Basin from all sources including agriculture, developed lands, wastewater, streams, and forested lands. Excess phosphorus promotes toxic algae blooms and water that is unhealthy for drinking, wildlife, and recreation. Because all land-use contributes to phosphorus contamination, all landowners should be required to be part of the solution.
Vermont has promoted an “all-in” approach, and a significant amount of work has already been done to lay the groundwork for water quality improvements. Act 64 of 2015, the Vermont Clean Water Act, strengthened regulatory authority, established the Clean Water Fund, and created state-level administrative structures to oversee this work.
In Addison County, there is evidence of progress. Middlebury’s efforts to protect the Otter Creek wetlands and also implement restoration of the Middlebury River in East Middlebury will mitigate future flooding and reduce sediment and contamination in waterways. State work along Route 7 in North Ferrisburgh established roadway plantings and improved culverts and buffers to better capture and filter highway runoff. Vergennes is in the early phases of planning a sewer upgrade which would reduce overflows into Otter Creek. Farmers across the county are using best management practices such as cover cropping, rotational grazing, conversion to organic, and anaerobic biodigesters.
These and similar methods for reducing phosphorus contamination and mitigating water pollution are crucial, and need to be recognized, incentivized, and supported. Because so much work has already been done, best practices have been established and regulations are generally in place. Now we must establish 1) clear and fair enforcement measures; 2) cross-sector, public-private partnerships that ensure entities are working together; and 3) a long-term funding source that is equitable, effective, and stable.
The annual all-source funding gap was estimated at over $60 million in early 2017. At that time, the State Treasurer’s report identified numerous existing revenue sources that could be tapped for short-term funding, consisting of a mix of bonds, loans and grants from a variety of governmental and some private sources. Using existing revenue sources is optimal, but insufficient. Public resources are important to ensure universal progress and offset the cost for those struggling to meet requirements. I would support the State Treasurer’s recommendation of some type of parcel or impervious/paved surface fee because of the connection to stormwater runoff and ability to ensure everyone contributes toward these efforts.
Finally, water quality issues are a statewide challenge, and are also impacted by toxic chemicals that leach into drinking water. To ensure the health of Vermonters and particularly children, who are most susceptible to environmental contamination, we should take a statewide, holistic approach to clean water issues.
Paul Ralston — Independent
Let’s remember…our goal is clean water. The goal is not to create a big new tax increase. Yes, we need to spend money on cleaning the waters of the state. The responsibility of state government is to make clean water a funding priority — to direct our resources to remediation and forward practices that actually result in cleaner water.
We learned a big lesson after Tropical Storm Irene.
We learned we need to change many long-accepted practices, to direct future public and private spending on projects that were designed with climate change in mind. These aren’t all high-tech or high-cost changes. The most important thing we learned from Irene is that culverts and stream crossings must be sized to handle heavy, localized rain events — one of the realities of climate change. Those changes, now being made in an organized, ongoing budget process, will help reduce the impact and damage of future climate events.
To oversimplify a complex problem, we need to reduce nutrient erosion, runoff and releases from our land-based activities. We are all responsible, in part, for these activities. They include community developments like impervious surfaces of roads, sidewalks, school buildings and parking lots; community wastewater treatment facilities; commercial developments like buildings and parking; farming; forestry; and erosion from streams and riverbanks.
We are all contributing, and we all have to make changes to adapt.
It’s convenient to blame farm and forestland owners. A better approach is to help farmers and foresters adopt changes that actually help reduce nutrient loss. Anyone who thinks a farmer doesn’t care about nutrient erosion from their land doesn’t know much about farming. Nutrients — phosphorous, nitrogen, potassium, and others — are valuable. They cost money. When they are lost to erosion, it hurts.
Removing nutrients from our water is difficult and expensive. The search for new technologies that can remediate nutrient-rich water needs to be encouraged and incentivized. Challenges that use the “power of the prize” are showing promise — even in our small state with the Phosphorus Challenge. Still, our current task must be to reduce erosion, runoff, and wastewater releases; that is the only cost-effective solution.
Some simple but effective solutions are already at hand. Best management practices for farm and forestland are in place and must be promoted and supported. Where costs are a constraint, we must consider the public good of investment in practices like: closing out steep logging roads and installing water bars and properly-sized culverts; leasing farm and forest riparian zones for long-cycle, deep rooted biomass growth; underwriting costs the market won’t bear in advanced manure and food waste management practices (Act 148); and improving the health of soils to retain water and soluble nutrients.
Commercial production and use of biochar in Vermont is an exciting possibility, something that has been used for millennia as a soil amendment. Adding biochar to soil increases soil’s capacity to fix soluble nutrients, creates long-term carbon sequestration, and represents a new market for our struggling forest-products industry.
Libertarian candidate Archie Flowers did not respond to today’s question in time to be included this week.
Look for candidate thoughts on more issues in next Thursday’s Addison Independent. Click here to read previous entries in this series.

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