By The Times Argus, Vermont
It’s unfortunate that efforts to come up with a long-term funding source for Lake Champlain’s cleanup have bogged down as a result of Gov. Phil Scott’s call for no new taxes or fees in the state budget.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated Vermont clean up the lake, specifically by reducing phosphorus runoff that causes harmful algal blooms, or HABs.
The problem has gotten worse in recent years.
And lawmakers outlined a plan in 2015 that relies on several measures, including the management of manure from farms, buffer zones near waterways and ditches and the reduction of runoff from parking lots.
In recent years, the extent, duration, and impacts of HABs have increased. HABs occurrence has been linked to phosphorus and other nutrient inputs and is exacerbated by heavy rain events and warming waters related to climate change.
The administration estimated the state will need up to $25 million annually over the next 20 years for lake cleanup. Federal funding and other sources will help to cover costs.
Short-term funding is being used from the capital bill, which is allocated to pay for construction projects.
The administration estimates it will not have sufficient resources to meet its funding commitments after fiscal year 2021, said Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore.
“There’s still more work to do and ultimately to have a long-term funding strategy that we can hopefully get broad agreement is robust,” she said.
Fortunately, other action has been taken.
In March, the final Omnibus Appropriations Bill included millions of dollars for cleanup and research of the Lake Champlain Basin.
At the time, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy said: “Lake Champlain will always be our ‘great lake.’ These investments will continue and expand the work being done to ensure that Lake Champlain’s resources and beauty are preserved for us and for our children and grandchildren. I am proud of the efforts that Vermonters are making for Lake Champlain’s health and vibrancy, and I will continue to support these efforts from the Senate Appropriations Committee.”
President Donald Trump has opposed a range of environmental priorities, including dedicated funding for Lake Champlain. The Trump administration’s budget would have eliminated all of the EPA’s Geographic Programs, abandoning a significant portion of federal support for ongoing regional cleanup projects in areas like Lake Champlain, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, all of which partner with local programs to find solutions.
Across the lake, in late 2017, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced a $65 million four-point initiative to aggressively combat harmful algal blooms in upstate New York waters, including Lake Champlain.
Cuomo said 12 lakes that are vulnerable to HABs are “critical drinking water sources and vital tourism drivers were chosen as priority waterbodies.” Lake Champlain and Lake George are two of the 12 that will receive greater focus. Lessons learned will be applied to other impacted waterbodies moving forward.
The initiative was designed to bring together experts from Vermont and New York, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio.
For sure, Lake Champlain is a huge economic driver for Vermont, bringing in millions in economic revenue.
“Our economy absolutely depends on it,” Democratic Sen. Ginny Lyons told the Associated Press this week. “Our fisheries, our fishing economy, just for aesthetic purposes, for public health, you name it, for all of our tourism that we have in the state.”
Lyons and other lawmakers are right to be concerned, both about the political finger-pointing and potential lawsuits if the state does not make a bigger commitment. (Gov. Scott, a Republican, made the lake cleanup one of his campaign promises, and since he announced he is seeking re-election, it likely will be again.)
Lawmakers do not want the burden of state projects to reduce phosphorus to fall solely on farmers.
A funding mechanism needs to be put in place so that Vermont can make healthy one of its most valuable natural resources, as well as protect it for the future.