Governor signs sweeping water quality bill

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By LISA LYNN
For The Essex Reporter

Last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin headed to the shores of Lake Champlain, first to Burlington and later to St. Albans, to sign H. 35, a piece of legislation that he has called “the most significant clean water bill in the state’s history.”

The legislation will help unlock tens of millions of dollars of federal funds and provide $7.5 million of state funds over the next three years to clean up waters in the Lake Champlain watershed and other bodies of water across the state.

A primary goal of the new law is to help Vermont meet new federal regulations to be set by the Environmental Protection Agency for the “total maximum daily load” (TMDL) of phosphorus levels for Lake Champlain and other bodies of water. With more than 7,100 miles of rivers and streams, and 812 lakes and ponds of more than 5 acres, the state will have to lay new groundwork for how it deals with everything from farm inspections and runoff, to pesticide use, to road building and new construction. The state has issued 114 TMDL plans for bodies of water or water segments. At least 115 waters or water segments are “stressed,” preventing a higher water quality, and at least 56 bodies of water are considered “altered” due to the presence of aquatic nuisance species.

Implementation of the program and details as to what that might include will be finalized after the EPA issues the Lake Champlain TMDL, which is expected later this summer.

Key points in the bill include:

  • Agriculture: Reducing the Impacts of Farms

Vermont has more than 7,000 farms, (around 950 are dairy farms) and more than 1.2 million acres devoted to agriculture. Yet of those, only 166 of the medium and large farms are regularly inspected and, at present, only five Agency of Agriculture staff work on outreach, education and compliance.

The new bill requires small farms to start self-certifying that they meet “Accepted Agricultural Practices” (AAPs), which will be updated this summer. The new AAPs will set stricter requirements for reducing soil erosion, fencing livestock out of streams, and increasing buffer zones along ditches and drainages. The bill will require any professional applying manure or nutrients to complete training and requires farms to have plans for how they store manure. New requirements prohibit stacking of manure or storing of fertilizers in a way that threatens a discharge into ground water.

The bill will also give the state the authority to issue emergency orders and take action if a significant water violation takes place. Farms that fail to meet water quality standards after a three-step enforcement process may have their Current Use tax valuation suspended.

Fees of $2,500 and $1,500, respectively, will also be placed on large and medium-size farms, while no fees will be placed on small farms.

  • Land & Water Management Planning

The new law tasks the Agency of Natural Resources with working with municipal officials on basin and surface water management planning, prioritizing water quality improvement projects, and designating waters that should be protected in the public interest.

Municipalities are responsible for 11,444 miles of Vermont’s highways, 7,073 of which are unpaved. About 5.6 percent of phosphorus loads into the lake are from unpaved roads. The Vermont Transportation Agency’s Better Back Roads Program estimates that up to 75 percent of all roads in Vermont may need some erosion control.

  • Stormwater Runoff

The new law sets new permitting processes and requirements for handling stormwater runoff that will affect development of roads, buildings and other impervious surfaces of one acre or larger. It also requires ANR to publish a handbook of water quality best practices for construction and development.

  • Clean Water Fund

The $7.5 million bill was funded in part by a 0.2 percent property transfer tax for the next three years, expiring on July 1, 2018. The surcharge will raise approximately $5.3 million in FY 2016 and $5.7 million in FY 2017. It will help fund eight new positions at the Agency of Agriculture and 13 at the Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Clean Water Fund, as it is called, will also help fund programs that address sources of water pollution, with the priority of helping municipalities comply with the new requirements and providing grants for ecosystem restoration and pollution abatement, including financial assistance to water treatment plants to reduce phosphorus discharge. It may also fund outreach and education, support innovative technologies and practices that will improve water quality, such as methane digesters.

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