Feds Issue New Lake Cleanup Targets, State Plans Wide-Ranging Efforts

Aug 14, 2015

State and federal officials announced new pollution reduction targets for Lake Champlain Friday as well as how the state plans to meet those targets.

Standing near Lake Champlain with families swimming behind him on Burlington's North Beach, Gov. Peter Shumlin said the complicated process that's played out over the past seven years is all in pursuit of a simple goal.

"Our goal is to ensure that when the folks coming down this road wanting to camp here swim here and enjoy this waterway, when anglers want to go fishing, when people and animals want to swim - dogs - that we will have clean water to swim in," Shumlin said.

Friday's announcement was two-fold.

Federal officials released a draft of lake pollution targets that require a 33.8 percent overall reduction in phosphorus pollution from the state of Vermont.

That document, called a Total Maximum Daily Load, lays out the total amount of phosphorus the lake can take while still being in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. The required reductions are divided into 12 lake segments, with the worst segment, Missisquoi Bay, needing a reduction of 64.3 percent. The least required reduction is in the Isle La Motte lake segment, which must reduce phosphorus flowing into the lake by 12.4 percent.

In a document released Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency set pollution reduction targets for Vermont's phosphorus contribution to 12 sections of Lake Champlain.
Credit EPA

At the same time, state officials released Phase I of the state's plan to meet those goals. Those plans outline in detail what the state will do to achieve the required reductions.

EPA New England Regional Administrator Curt Spaulding said he was very happy with the state's approach to cleaning up the lake.

He said it's rare to see a multi-agency approach like Vermont's, which includes the agencies of Natural Resources, Agriculture, Transportation and Community and Economic Development.

"And I don't get often the opportunity to say this and I don't know how many legislative leaders are here," he said, "but the fact that the Vermont Legislature stood up and owned an environmental issue, an economic issue, a cultural issue, an historic issue - took it all in and acted, and acted with a systemic understanding of the problem - that is really unique."

Lawmakers this year passed the "Vermont Clean Water Act," which gives new funding and regulatory authority to the state for water quality efforts.

Officials warned that while putting the plan together and getting the new legislation through was a major undertaking, implementing it will take even more.

"No question we all have a lot of work to do and we're all in this together," Shumlin said. "So it's going to change life on the ground."

"No question we all have a lot of work to do and we're all in this together." - Gov. Peter Shumlin

Vermont's cleanup plan includes discharge permits for all roadways in the state, stricter rules on farm runoff, new logging and development regulations and even plans to allow rivers to reclaim their natural routes where they've been corralled by human activity. Officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation are developing stormwater permitting processes for roadways and developments over three acres.

The state is also assembling a cross-agency task force to work with municipalities so municipal road systems and developments can come into compliance.

The plans require a major regulatory rollout and new efforts to address pollution from virtually every surface that gets rained on. Shumlin says the state's multifaceted approach comes with the staffing, money and community buy-in it needs to work.

"The good news is this is a true partnership where we have committed to raising the resources to not only do the education, but help farmers, help municipalities make the investments they have to make to get this right," he said. "So it's a new world, but it's backed up by federal and state and private dollars."

The new pollution targets are coming because the Conservation Law Foundation sued EPA in 2008 for not setting high enough standards for Vermont to meet. The settlement in that case required new pollution targets.

Officials are confident the new plan will clean up the lake and eventually put an end to the toxic cyanobacteria blooms that have plagued the lake in recent years.

Christopher Kilian, a senior attorney for Conservation Law Foundation, says his team will be taking a close look at the plan to make sure it will bring Vermont back into compliance with the federal clean water act.

"And we can't wait decades," he says. "We can't wait and rely on future EPA administrators and future governors 10, 15, 20, 30 years from now to get the clean water. The law requires more than that. So we'll be taking a hard look at the plan and providing our input over the course of the next several months."

The EPA is accepting public comments on the new pollution targets in a series of meetings starting later this month.