Report Finds Vermonters Willing To Give Up (Not Enough) Green To Improve Water Quality

Dec 4, 2014

A new report from the University of Vermont says Vermonters are willing to pay more – but still not nearly enough – to improve water quality in Vermont.

Water quality challenges in the state are widespread, the report said, not just in Lake Champlain. As a result, the majority of Vermonters are willing to pay more to help solve pollution issues – including the high phosphorus levels that caused unprecedented toxic algae blooms in parts of Lake Champlain this year.

"We are looking at this is a glass half-full," said Professor Chris Koliba, who worked on the report. "That you have 65 percent of the population that are willing to pay $40, and of that 65, there's a significant percentage that's willing to pay even more."

But the financial support Vermonters are willing to give would only cover about 10 percent of the estimate needed to bring the state’s Lake Champlain cleanup effort into compliance with the Clean Water Act. This leaves the state – already facing a $100 million budget gap for the coming fiscal year – in need of about $140 million to cover the shortage.

There are questions about the accuracy of the estimated $156 million annual price tag for lake cleanup.

David Mears, the state's commissioner of environmental conservation, says the $156 million state estimate is high. Instead, Mears said, his department is taking a year-by-year approach to lake cleanup.

Whatever the real number is, the UVM report said it's far above the $16 million in additional funding this report says the state could likely find support for.

“Analysis of polling data confirms another conclusion of the report,” the report said, “that the ability to raise funds falls vastly short of the amount of funds needed.”

But Mears said the state doesn't even plan on taking advantage of Vermonters' willingness to pitch in for clean water. A DEC report last month featured two funding ideas for water quality programs - a manure use tax for farms and a developed land fee for building projects - neither of them as broad-based as suggestions in the report such as an additional $20 fee included in vehicle registration.

And Mears said the Shumlin administration won't propose such revenue-generating measures to the legislature this year.

"There's certainly people in the legislature that have talked about that in the past couple of years. It's not part of what the administration will be putting forward," Mears said.

The report also offered the most comprehensive view yet of the demographic makeup of the lake’s most dedicated political allies across the state. College-educated, new Vermonters who identify as Progressive or Democratic – and are women – are most likely to support increased spending on water quality improvements.

Notably, the report said proximity to Lake Champlain is not a significant factor in whether a Vermonter will support increased spending on water quality.

“More than one body of water in Vermont is failing to meet its [Clean Water Act] requirements,” the report said. “Pollution problems, such as harmful algal blooms, persist in both Lake Carmi and Lake Memphremagog, and in the Connecticut River.”

In terms of public messaging about water quality, the report said, “these data can be interpreted to suggest that efforts to raise awareness about, and address water quality concerns, should highlight the statewide nature of water quality challenges.”

But not everyone in the state is willing to pay more. Among the exceptions is Franklin County, which is home to two of the most troubled watersheds on Lake Champlain: St. Albans Bay and Missisquoi Bay.

The study said the increased spending has greatest political support for funds gathered through one-time development fees (when a development is built) and stormwater fees collected through increased vehicle registration cost. The majority of Vermonters, the report said, support increasing funding through both of those measures.

The state needs money to fund cleanup, but also the political will – something critics say has been in short supply in recent years with regard to lake water quality. Recently, Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross declined to force high-polluting farms in the Missisquoi Bay watershed to follow mandatory “best management practices” to reduce levels of phosphorus running off their land. The agency says its current regulations and enforcement actions are sufficient to force farmers to reduce pollution. 

The UVM report says education level and political identification are the two best indicators of willingness to clean up the state’s troubled waters.