Clean water advocates took to the North Branch River in downtown Montpelier Thursday to push for long-term funding for pollution-reduction measures.
On a cool and overcast morning, eight kayakers, four canoers, and a blind 12-year-old dog named Ella-T mounted their watercraft at the mouth of the North Branch River to draw attention to their cause.
The water was exceedingly low - not uncommon for late August. And slick and jagged rocks on the river bottom made for some pretty slow going. But the quality of the current wasn’t the main draw for the water advocates who had come out for the event.
“I am here today to try and bring the Winooski River out of the shadows, because I think we have turned our back on this river,” said Elena Mihaly, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.
In the last month alone, Montpelier has issued six sewer overflow alerts - three for the North Branch, and three for the Winooski River it feeds into.
“One of the biggest issues is the fact that we still have several active combined sewage overflows that are discharging raw sewage almost on a weekly basis all summer long into this river,” Mihaly said. “And so I’m here today paddling the Winooski to say, ‘Wake up, state decision-makers. We need to start actually giving this river the attention it deserves.”
Mihaly was preaching to the choir at the so-called paddle protest on Thursday. Mark Nelson, chairman of the board of the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club, said advocates’ job now is to get that choir to grow.
“And there’s just not enough people in our state that understand that we have a water problem, so activities like this that help raise awareness is very important to us,” Nelson said.
Advocates like Juliana Dixon, with Lake Champlain International, are looking for stronger voices from the Vermont Statehouse, which is why clean-water groups staged the event in Montpelier.
“While Montpelier is by far not the only location contributing to the [sewage overflow] issue, this is the seat of our representatives, and this is where statewide decision-making occurs,” Dixon said. “To me, motivating the people of Montpelier, motivating our representatives to take action on a statewide level, is key to solving these issues.”
The paddle was short - maybe a tenth of a mile up the North Branch. But the protestors did their best to make their point by chanting to the curious onlookers that peered down at them from some of Montpelier’s downtown bridges.
Advocates have a long list of items on their legislative agenda. But they say getting a long-term funding source for water quality initiatives is the top priority. The pollution reduction effort is expected to cost upwards of $1 billion over the next 20 years.