Water Quality Takes Center Stage in Montpelier

Legislators are hard at work crafting water quality policy this year. Let them know you want to see strong legislation that includes funding to protect and restore waterways. Photo by Wikipedia.org.

Water quality improvements for Lake Champlain were a central theme when Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin stepped to the podium to deliver his inaugural address on January 8th. The Governor called for increased accountability for farm pollution and the establishment of a clean water fund that would provide increased funding for water quality projects. These are measures LCC has long advocated. The proposals have been put together in bill H. 35 and details will be hashed out in a variety of House and Senate committees throughout the legislative session.

LCC will closely track the progress of this bill as it wends its way through the statehouse. We will be working to ensure the bill retains an effective funding mechanism for the necessary programs, continues to provide appropriate regulatory authority to state agencies, and provides necessary technical assistance to make progress on our water quality goals. Please keep in touch with your own legislators to let them know you want to see significant investment in protecting our waters.

Farm Pollution
There are a number of provisions in H. 35 to deal with agricultural water quality issues. The draft bill would allow the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to require best management practices on farms even if resources are not available to pay for them. The current law requires the Agency to first determine that sufficient financial assistance is available before requiring best management practices. The bill would create a training course designed to teach farmers tools to help reduce water quality impacts. It would also require that contracted manure applicators are certified to perform the work they are doing. The bill would require the Agency of Agriculture to update the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs); these are the minimum requirements all farms must follow to reduce environmental impacts. LCC wants to see these minimum standards strengthened to be more protective of water quality. Perhaps the two biggest agricultural components of the bill are a self-certification program for small farms to indicate that they are following AAPs, and a provision to tie farmers’ tax bills to compliance with AAPs.

AAPs have been on the books for years now, yet awareness of them is limited. Many operators of small farms believe they only apply to larger farms whereas in reality medium and large farms actually require permits beyond AAPs. In recent years the Agency of Agriculture has increased its outreach to small farms to raise awareness of AAPs. However visiting every farm is labor intensive, time consuming and costly. It would be more efficient to develop tools that require farmers to learn about the AAPs on their own. Agency staff could then do random inspections and focus more narrowly on helping non-complying farmers come into compliance within a strict timeframe. The self-certification proposal is one such educational tool. All small farmers would need to review their practices and certify that their operation is indeed in compliance with AAPs.  Once the self-certification is signed there’s no more excuse that the farmer was unaware of acceptable practices. 

A second proposed tool would tie compliance with AAPs to the farmer’s tax bill. Many farms in the state are enrolled in the Use Value Appraisal system, also known as Current Use. Agricultural and forest land in this program is taxed at a lower rate than developed land to reflect that undeveloped land places less of a burden on roads and schools. Currently, if forest land enrolled in the program is developed or harvested improperly, a land use change tax is levied on the developed portion and all or a portion of the property can be discontinued from the program. There is no such provision for agricultural lands, despite the fact that if these lands are not well managed they place a burden on society in the form of reduced water quality. The draft bill changes this and would allow discontinuation for egregious violations of AAPs. It is logical and fair that agricultural and forest lands be treated the same with regard to compliance with accepted practices. Surely awareness of the AAPs and their requirements will increase dramatically when farmers’ tax bills depend on compliance.

Clean Water Fund
LCC has testified that no efforts toward Lake Champlain clean-up can succeed without funding to support them. Our highest priority for H. 35 is establishment of a dedicated, reliable, continuous source of money for clean water initiatives. An ideal funding source would be tied to water quality impacts; those with a greater impact pay more.  H.35 proposes establishing a Clean Water Fund that in itself would be dedicated. While the fund would accept contributions and grants, two sources that are not necessarily reliable or continuous, it would also be fed by two new revenue sources: a per-parcel fee, and an increased tax on commercial fertilizer.

The proposed per-parcel fee of $200 would be assessed on commercial, and industrial, parcels in the Lake Champlain Basin. These are the land uses that tend to have the greatest amount of impervious cover and thus the greatest impact on water quality.  Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (VT DEC) staff estimate such a fee would raise approximately $1-million. Historically Vermont has not adequately accounted for the external impacts of development on the environment. Though we now have rules to treat stormwater from the largest properties there is still pollution discharge. A per parcel fee accounts for the societal costs imposed by development. LCC feels the proposed fee should go farther, and we have urged expanding it at a lower rate to residential properties. To the extent practicable we would also like to see the fee set at a sliding scale so that larger tracts of impervious cover pay higher fees.

The second proposed revenue source would be an increase in the tax on nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer imported to the state from $0.25 per ton to $50 per ton. Every pound of fertilizer imported makes our water quality goals that much more difficult to achieve. The best management practices we ask of farms are mostly designed to keep phosphorus on the land. Currently there are no disincentives, other than cost, to prevent importation of phosphorus to Vermont to begin with. An increase in the fertilizer tax would provide additional revenue to deal with the problems the fertilizer causes in the water while encouraging reductions in use.

LCC supports the establishment of a Clean Water Fund to provide an on-going sustainable funding source for water quality improvement projects. We will be paying close attention to how the fund is supervised and governed as H. 35 moves forward.