Lake Champlain Cleanup Plan Shows Commitment But Not Dollars

May 29, 2014

The Shumlin Administration Thursday unveiled its latest cleanup plan to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain from all sources. But the plan lacked details on how officials would enforce new regulations and how the state would pay for the needed changes.

David Mears, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and other department heads, said the plan will work  by increasing regulation on sources such as farm runoff, stream bank erosion, road management and logging practices.

A slideshow Mears presented listed price figures for various methods the state has available to control the flow of phosphorus into the lake.

  • $30,000 per acre for stormwater management
  • $3,000  per 1,000 feet for improve roadside ditches
  • $50,000 per mile for levee removal.

The results are promising. Mears said many of the methods he listed could yield 60 to 80 percent reductions in phosphorus, the nutrient that feeds the toxic algae blooms in the lake.

But statewide, Mears said the administration doesn’t know who is going to pay for all this work – or how much.

“There is not a way to calculate one sum of money,” he said. “There’s costs to the communities I want to make sure we’re thinking about. There’s costs to the developers. We haven’t actually had sit down conversations with that whole array of folks to figure out what they’re already paying.”

Mears said that work will come over the next six months, as officials in a wide array of state departments prepare to present lawmakers with proposals for funding the plan.

"There is not a way to calculate one sum of money. There's costs to the communities ... There's costs to the developers. We haven't actually had sit down conversations with that whole array of folks to figure out what they're already paying." - David Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation

But he said the cleanup plan, known as a TMDL, which stands for Total Maximum Daily Load, is a significant move in the right direction after decades of substandard controls.

“We have a fairly detailed comprehensive plan that builds on those lessons that identifies specific actions that we’re going to take to move forward,” he said.

But one action Gov. Peter Shumlin seems unwilling to take is continued investment in wastewater treatment – an area the state has already made significant progress in improving.

In a letter accompanying the state’s submission of the plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approval, Shumlin threatened the state’s commitment if the EPA didn’t back down on its calls for new wastewater treatment plant upgrades.

After outlining the steps the state is willing to take in reducing wastewater pollution, Shumlin wrote “if the manner of EPA’s final load allocation for wastewater treatment does not reflect the above principles, then I will direct my agency secretaries to withdraw the commitments we are making elsewhere in the plan.”

According to Chris Kilian, director of the Vermont branch of the Conservation Law Foundation, that approach simply won’t work.

"There’s federal law to deal with here, and the EPA will come back and say what they’ve always said which is when it comes to point sources of pollution the state doesn’t really have the ability to say ‘We’re not going to do anything more on wastewater treatment plants,’” he said. 

Overall, though, Kilian was cautiously optimistic about the state’s new plan to address what he called a crisis in Lake Champlain.

“The submission of the plan to U.S. EPA under the governor’s signature is a level of commitment and attention to this issue that we haven’t really seen from any recent prior administration in the state, so that is very good news,” he said.

Kilian said he’d be watching closely in the coming months as the state figures out how to fund and enforce the new measures.

“The devil,” he said, “is in the details.”