Government Shutdown Affects Lake Champlain

Closing government offices idles many of the people who work on lake issues. Photo by Tommy Ironic on

At midnight on September 30 the federal government shut down when the House of Representatives failed to pass a Continuing Resolution for the budget. Below is a rundown on some of the ways the government shutdown affects the lake.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working on a new phosphorus reduction budget for Lake Champlain - a TMDL or Total Maximum Daily Load. (See "Cleaner Water" article below.) The Agency was scheduled to release a draft of the plan later this month, but it is not clear they will be able to do so in the face of the shutdown. The new plan will likely call for additional regulations on roads, stormwater permits, agricultural lands, and floodplain development. However, authority for new regulations and funding for incentives has to be approved by the Vermont legislature, which reconvenes in January. The longer the draft plan is delayed, the less time the legislature will have to review and absorb requirements set forth in it.

Fall is the time for developing budget priorities for the state and federal government. The Lake Champlain Basin Program Technical Advisory Committee (TAC - which LCC Staff Scientist Mike Winslow chairs) plays a key role in identifying priority projects for funding. However, a half-dozen members of that body are federal employees who are furloughed and unable to participate in the process during the shutdown. The absence of their valuable knowledge and experience severely limits the TAC’s ability to outline the most critical immediate next steps in managing the lake.

Vermont’s duck hunting season began on October 9, but one of the more popular hunting locales on Lake Champlain may not be open to the public this year. The Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge in Franklin County Vermont has been closed as a result of the shutdown. No hunting or fishing is allowed in the refuge during the shutdown, and the Visitor Center has been shuttered.

Implementation of farm conservation practices will be delayed during the shutdown. Federal employees of the Natural Resources Conservation Service have been furloughed and are not available to enroll willing farmers in the programs or provide technical assistance to projects that have been funded but not yet started.

The federal shutdown is not the only evidence of dysfunction in Washington, the Farm Bill has also expired and there is no evidence that a new one is forthcoming soon. The Farm Bill provides tremendous financial resources for conservation practices throughout the Champlain Basin. Without it, farmers have avoided signing up for edge of field monitoring that help identify the effectiveness of best management practices. Each new Farm Bills resets the cap on what farmers can receive in federal aid. In the absence of a bill, farmers fear that if they accept funds for monitoring it will limit their ability to get later funds for water quality improvement projects. 

The federal shutdown impacts projects and programs important to protecting and improving Lake Champlain's health. The longer it continues, the more incremental harm will occur.