FRANKLIN — The Franklin Watershed Committee (FWC) held its annual meeting Wednesday night as algal blooms continue to bloom in local lakes raising public concern about the environment and health.

The session brought close to 50 residents, volunteers, legislators and state officials together to talk about the problem of polluted waters here in Lake Carmi and the surrounding watershed.

One of the main issues addressed in the meeting was the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds for local watershed organizations due to a reduction in state and federal grants for community education and outreach over the past three years.

These grants – sourcing from the federal EPA Clean Water Act Section 319 grant funds and distributed through state environmental agencies – have traditionally been available to local watershed organizations since 1990.

According to Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officials, however, a decrease in federal funds has led to a tightening DEC’s budget. As a result, no Section 319 monies have been available to local watershed associations since 2011, but have instead gone toward DEC personnel costs.

This was news to many at the FWC meeting Wednesday night, and according to attendee and Lake Carmi resident Larry Myott, other residents did not like what they heard.

“I think most of them were really quite shocked this was going on,” Myott said yesterday.

Three to four years ago, DEC had $1.5 million from the EPA and $300,000 to give to community watershed groups. In 2014, those numbers shifted to $1.1 million and zero respectively.

“[The change] comes with rising personnel costs and the available state money to do project work,” said Rick Hopkins, manager of DEC’s Watershed Grant Program, n Thursday. “We have to therefore be smarter, more and more strategic and target how the limited amount of money – how we’re spending that, where it goes.”

He added, “We’re in no way trying to suggest that the local groups aren’t important anymore. Project implementation by local folks is key. It’s a tough balancing act.”

DEC Commissioner David Mears said the balancing shouldn’t take away from local efforts, but he also said more money will be needed in the state’s budget if water clean up and conservation is to be done better.

“What we need to do is increase the pie,” Mears said yesterday. DEC has submitted a new implementation plan to the EPA, and the department also has until November to submit a funding proposal to state legislators. Mears added that he felt most people were aware of the issues with water quality in the state’s lakes, and want to do something about it.

He added that he and Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross especially felt those sentiments when they visited the Missisquoi Bay Wednesday. “We’re just completely frustrated – it’s really disappointing to see how big the algae bloom is.”

While state officials are talking about the difficulty of balancing their environmental conservation budget, local watershed coordinators and residents are insisting that more work needs to take place on the ground.

FWC Coordinator Alisha Sawyer said Thursday that lack of funds to do education and outreach within actual watershed areas risks loss of monitoring and local knowledge of water pollution, enforcement of environmental regulations and the health and functionality of local water bodies, and therefore communities as a whole.

“A working landscape doesn’t work without clean water,” Sawyer said.

Water, money problems

Lake Carmi and Lake Champlain in Franklin County have been experiencing algae blooms this summer, which result from nutrients being added to the water and allowing cyanobacteria, or blue green algae, to multiply.

Coming into contact with these algae blooms has been linked to deaths in animals and illness in humans.

While groups such as FWC, Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC), the Missisquoi River Basin Association (MRBA) and others are working in their communities to improve and protect their respective bodies of water, which includes increasing environmental regulation enforcement to eliminate phosphorous loading and those resulting algal blooms, their ability to do so is limited due to lack of funds.

Education, outreach, and technical assistance done by local watershed organizations have generally been funded by Section 319 grants in the past and up until 2011. Now, watershed organizations are left without an alternative, since other non-point source pollution grants coming from DEC’s Ecosystem Restoration Program (ERP) don’t cover those types of costs.

“It’s really tied our hands,” said Sawyer, who is also the coordinator for MRBA. “Franklin Watershed has no incoming funds from the state or federal government at this time.”

According to Hopkins, while taking away EPA Section 319 funding from local groups and putting it towards DEC personnel isn’t ideal, it’s something that had to be done to balance the department’s budget.

What to do?

While promises of funding in the future are a start, shoreline residents, watershed organization coordinators, and a host of others want a change now.

Myott and others in the Franklin area decided at Wednesday’s meeting to sign a petition to send to state legislators, asking for more DEC funding so Section 319 monies can be redirected back into local communities.

“[The money] is supposed to be out in the field doing good for the state of Vermont and not filling more in cubicles in Montpelier,” Myott said. “We’re not going to let this sit.”

Denise Smith, director of FNLC, said yesterday that as the Section 319 money is spent now, no DEC workers are out in local communities with area residents. “We don’t see state people at all,” she said. Smith added that having people on the ground is a core component of effective water conservation work, since local awareness can lead to enforcing environmental regulations and proactive conservation action.

“Ideally, we need people who live in the community to talk about this with their neighbors,” said Smith.

If more funding were sent to FWC, Sawyer said real change could happen for Lake Carmi and its surrounding watershed. “This is a place where we could really see a difference if there was a concerted effort,” Sawyer said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Unfortunately, with the current lack of emergency state action and funds for local education and outreach, Sawyer said she is afraid it will be too late.

“It’s really unfortunate that it might be beyond the point of fixing it before people pay attention to it,” she said.