Rare Statehouse-Wide Caucus Held On Water Quality Issues

Feb 19, 2015

Vermont Statehouse
Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley

Cleaning up Lake Champlain will take a joint effort between business leaders, environmental officials and politicians. That was the message yesterday in Montpelier, as WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley reports.

The Legislature held an unusual "Committee of the Whole" meeting on water quality issues in which the entire legislature was invited to hear the testimony of witnesses on House Bill H.35: the Water Quality Bill. Normally testimony would be taken in the environmental and agriculture committees.

The bill authorizes measures to meet the total maximum daily load plan for phosphorus entering Lake Champlain as required by the EPA; establishes a dedicated funding source to implement projects, and engages more economic and community sectors to improve water quality. Vermont Natural Resources Council Water Program Director Kim Greenwood.   “This bill is not the lake clean up bill. This bill is just what the Agency needs as legislative authority to fully implement their implementation plan. So there’s much more to this huge clean up process than just the bill. But without the bill many of the pieces in the implementation plan can’t go forward. So it’s going to be a big change.”

Douglas administration Vermont Clean and Clear program director Julie Moore is now the Water Resources Group Leader at Stone Environmental, a consulting firm in Montpelier. She is also chair of the Vermont Community Advisory Committee on Lake Champlain. She says the Statehouse caucus is crucial for several reasons.  “First and foremost this summer was a particularly challenging one for water quality not only in Lake Champlain but also in Lake Carmi. There were really significant algae blooms that lasted for several months and compromised people’s ability to access those water bodies.  There were a lot of very upset residents that have really led a charge in highlighting the importance of this issue. I think coupled with EPA’s focus on Vermont as they work to revise the Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution budget, for the lake there’s an increased regulatory focus as well.  Those two pieces really came together at the Statehouse yesterday as the Legislature looks at a comprehensive clean water bill this session.”

Lake Champlain Committee Executive Director Lori Fisher says it’s a critical year for funding and action on water quality protection. Pointing to increasing algae bloom problems in Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi, Fisher said the Statehouse caucus was intended to highlight to legislators the economic and quality of life repercussions.   “These blooms have a significant ecological effect as well as a dramatic effect on the local and regional economy. There’s a real recognition I think in Vermont in terms of how important our environmental assets are. Not only for the residents that live there, it’s also how business is attracted here. It’s part of the Vermont brand and that’s being tarnished by the challenging water quality situation. We have to do something now. This is not just a Lake Champlain issue. There are other water bodies that are impaired.”

The VNRC’s Kim Greenwood says the full legislative caucus illustrates the growing need for state leaders to address water quality issues.   “We don’t see assemblies like this very often and it speaks a lot to not just the frustration that people have but also the expectations that they are putting on their legislators this session to get something meaningful done.”

Julie Moore reports that more than two-thirds of legislators participated in the caucus. Governor Peter Shumlin also addressed the meeting, reiterating his inaugural message that the state is "losing the battle" for clean water and urging action this session.