- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont officials are being asked to get serious and specific about cleaning up Lake Champlain as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced deadlines Wednesday for the state to send finalized policy plans for reducing non-wastewater runoff into the lake.

Storm water runoff containing phosphorous and other pollutants is causing excessive plant and algae growth in some areas of the lake, turning the water murky shades of green, brown, or blue. Officials and advocates say the pollution hurts tourism and recreation businesses dependent on clean water, depresses property values and increases drinking water and wastewater treatment costs.

“That body of water is a different body of water today than what it was when I was a young lad fishing on its shores and catching frogs along its banks,” Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross said at the hearing this week.

The EPA requires a 36 percent reduction in total maximum daily load, or TMDL. TMDL is a calculation of the maximum amount of pollutant that a body of water can receive and still meet water quality standards. For Lake Champlain, this means cutting down on non-wastewater runoff full of sediment and other materials.

Vermont will be “leading the pack” with the state’s proposed goals, but specifics from the state by the end of March and a commitment letter from Gov. Peter Shumlin by the end of April will be required to move forward, according to the EPA’s Stephen Perkins. If the deadlines are met, the EPA says it will have a finalized limit on runoff by the end of the summer.

In a statement, Shumlin said he will send a letter of commitment to the EPA, as required.

“My administration is committed to helping clean Lake Champlain and all state waters because they are critical to our quality of life and environment,” Shumlin said. “Lake Champlain is also vital to Vermont’s economy, and a clean lake means more jobs.”

The governor said his agencies are working to reduce phosphorous pollution and that he welcomes the public discussion on ways to protect the state’s waterways.

Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, David Mears, outlined proposed plans during the hearing at the statehouse.

The statewide plan includes enhancing water quality rules for agriculture, requiring additional storm water treatment for developed areas and improving rules for managing rivers and floodplains, among other commitments, according to Mears.

Runoff has been the subject of litigation for years, with environmental groups arguing the state has not done enough to limit the flow of polluted runoff.

Four environmental groups called on the state to give specifics about limiting phosphorous and asked Shumlin, in particular, to show leadership. According to Chris Kilian of the Conservation Law Foundation, the current plan doesn’t provide the level of detail needed.

Kilian also said Vermont, not New York or Quebec, is the disproportionate source of problematic runoff for the lake because it had so much agriculture and development in the watershed.

Farms across the state have already committed to changing practices to reduce runoff, according to Ross. For a large farm with more than 700 head of livestock, that kind of commitment comes with a price tag in the thousands, Ross said. The newly passed Farm Bill provides about $15 million annually for five years for conservation work in Vermont, according to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office. Ross said that money will fund some runoff-reducing projects for farmers.

The concrete cost for the state government and taxpayers is unknown at the present time because federal and private funding has yet to be determined, Mears said.

Similar projects around the country have cost upward of $100 million over 30 years, according to Perkins.

“It’s not really a question about whether the state of Vermont as a whole pays for these cleanup obligations. We will be paying one way or the other; the question is who pays and whether … the money’s invested strategically and gets the work done,” Mears said.

The EPA expects measures to be implemented within 15 years. However, it could take between 10 and 40 years for effects of the cleanup to be fully realized, depending on the different levels of pollution in areas of the lake.