Shumlin’s signature just the beginning

ST. ALBANS — Even before the pens were brought out for the signing of H. 35, the water quality bill, Pixley Hill, of Highgate, said, “The work of everybody here is just stunning.”

Hill, a longtime water quality advocate, who along with her brother, Ted Tyler, was recognized last year by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), added, “I’m so proud to be here with all of you.”

The water quality bill will bring new resources to the struggle to reduce pollution in Vermont’s waterways, which was given new urgency by blue-green algae blooms in St. Albans and Missisquoi bays last summer. It also is expected to produce a water cleanup plan for Lake Champlain, which the EPA would approve.

It was the anger and advocacy of area residents, which drew praise at Tuesday’s signing. “Without the grassroots in Franklin County this bill would never have happened,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin.

“I’m incredibly grateful to the agricultural community,” said Shumlin, noting the bill wouldn’t have been possible “without farmers standing up and saying, we’re part of the problem and we want to be part of the solution.”

Enosburgh selectman and Farmers Watershed Alliance member Larry Gervais confirmed that sentiment, saying, “We’re all in it.”

“There’s a lot of us farmers out there trying to do the right thing,” added Gervais, who also expressed appreciation to the Vermont Legislature for listening to farm community input.

The collaboration necessary to create and pass the bill “should be a model for how we get things done in the future,” said Shumlin. “Now we go out together and say ‘in this partnership we’re going to do the right thing.'”

Last September, a meeting at St. Albans Bay with legislative candidates “was another contentious lake meeting,” said Denise Smith of Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC). “From that, the legislative body of Franklin County took the ball to the statehouse.”

Smith noted the passage of the bill is the start of the process. “The rulemaking process is going to be long and arduous,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to be done individually and collectively.”

“We have to re-think how we manage our land and think about it from the water’s perspective,” said Smith.

St. Albans City Mayor Liz Gamache called the bill “an inspiration to think about how we can work together to get things done.”

The bill grew out of difficult, intelligent, fact-based conversations, said Gamache.

St. Albans City and Town already have begun working together on education and outreach efforts to inform citizens about how they impact the lake. Gamache said she looks forward to continuing to work with the town on water quality.

Although Shumlin stated the bill started with local advocates, it truly began with the work of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which petitioned the EPA in 2008 to overturn Vermont’s plan to cleanup Lake Champlain, known as the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) on numerous grounds including insufficient assurances the state could meet its goals for reducing pollution from non-point sources, such as agricultural and stormwater runoff.

In 2010, the EPA agreed to reconsider the TMDL, setting in motion several years of work as the state and the federal agency gathered the existing research on the lake and used sophisticated modeling to determine which land practices would result in the greatest levels of pollution reduction.

The result was a comprehensive plan that touches on everything from wastewater treatment facilities to dirt roads. Approval of the new TMDL, expected this summer, was contingent upon the passage of H. 35, a bill designed to provide the assurances lacking in the original TMDL.

To provide those assurances the bill contains new funding to clean up Vermont’s waters, and creates a clean water fund to be used to support efforts to address stormwater. An agriculture fund will provide additional technical support to farmers. Rules also will be tightened on the agricultural community and small farms will be required to certify they are following accepted agricultural practices, the minimum water quality protection code.

Funds for enforcement are also included in the bill.

Anthony Iarrapino, former staff attorney for CLF who authored the petition for the overturning of the TMDL, expressed some frustration this morning with how long it took to get a new TMDL drafted and a bill to implement it. “These are biological systems so we don’t fully understand what it means when we delay,” said Iarrapino.

While disappointed the EPA didn’t insist the state “move more quickly and boldly,” Iarrapino did add, “But movement at last.”

“Finally, we’ve got a dedicated pot of money,” he said. “Hopefully, the future that pot of money can be connected more directly to sources of pollution.”

An administration plan to fund water cleanup with a per-parcel fee and a fertilizer tax was largely scuttled by the Legislature, which funded the work with fees on agricultural permits and a surcharge on the property transfer tax.

During his years with CLF, the frustration of people in Franklin County was a motivating factor for him, said Iarrapino. He recalled visiting the bay park on a summer day when it should have been filled with families, but instead was empty because of blue-green algae blooms.

“Both human and natural communities really deserve a new direction,” said Iarrapino.

The signing of the bill was split between Waterfront Park in Burlington and the dock at St. Albans Bay Park.

“And it’s done,” Shumlin said, after adding the date to the bill.