By Kirk Carapezza
The Environmental Protection Agency is urging the Vermont Legislature to set tougher limits for the main pollutant that harms Lake Champlain.
The culprit is phosphorus – a nutrient that has fueled the toxic algae blooms that have plagued the lake in recent years.
The EPA’s advice to lawmakers comes as the federal agency is preparing new standards for phosphorous control from storm water runoff and erosion. Some lawmakers are concerned the work they’re doing during this legislative session won’t make a difference under those federal pollution reduction targets expected to be released this fall.
Under the Clean Water Act and Vermont’s water quality standards, if water systems exceed so-called reasonable pollutant levels the state is required to develop a plan to respond to the problem.
But if the Clean Water Act doesn’t support the state’s standard, then the EPA is obligated to create mitigation strategies.
“Are we spinning our wheels in terms of what we’re going ahead and doing?” asked Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.
Deen pointed to Act 138, a law passed last year that, he says, marked a significant step toward addressing the nutrient levels in all Vermont water systems.
“That was a lot of work to get what we did last year out – make the changes in statute that expanded authorities for our rivers programs, help municipalities be able to address storm water and erosion situations,” Deen said.
On Friday, Stephen Perkins, director of ecosystem protection with the EPA’s New England office, was at the Statehouse to reassure Deen and other lawmakers that Vermont would receive recognition for its efforts.
“We will figure out how to calculate credit for actions that you take this session – or have been taken in the last few years,” Perkins said, testifying before the committees.
“No wasted effort,” he added.
But Perkins also told lawmakers they will face important policy choices later this year.
“I expect that programs will be more targeted and may be less broad brush across the landscape and will focus on more where there’s a steep stream bank and how to protect that and not worry so much about those that lay in less steep terrain,” Perkins said.
This fall the EPA will set a maximum level for how many tons of phosphorous Lake Champlain can handle. “If you’re shooting and you don’t have a target, you’re just shooting,” Perkins said.
“We can always do more,” said David Mears, Vermont’s Environmental Conservation commissioner. Mears said the state needs to have a shared understanding of the water quality problem before making more investments.
“The public wants to know, ‘What are we going to get at the end of the day? Is there ever an end to this, or is this just an endless request for more and more and more?’” he said. “I think setting the target is really important from that perspective.”
For now, Mears urged lawmakers to focus on addressing new practices on agricultural lands, improving transportation infrastructure and protecting flood plains and wetlands.