Lots of questions, ideas on state water cleanup

Vermont has pressing water-quality and pollution concerns, plus a hugely ambitious cleanup plan, and a crowd packed into Shelburne’s Town Hall Tuesday night to ask questions about improving water quality in the state.

Chittenden County’s six state senators and Julie Moore, secretary of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, listened to public comments, raised some questions of their own, and took home a bunch of suggestions.

The takeaway: When it comes to water quality in Vermont, imbalances abound — from too many nutrients to not enough money — and one evening’s conversation is only a drop in the ongoing stream of water quality issues the state faces.

The senators are holding a series of community forums throughout the county to talk with residents on a variety of topics.

“As a group, we decided that water quality should be one of the issues and Shelburne seemed like a natural fit,” said state Sen. Christopher Pearson, P/D-Burlington.

The state needs to consider climate change in establishing and enforcing limits on how much phosphorous gets into Lake Champlain, said Julie Moore, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Moore said this summer’s severe algae blooms are a result of a system out of balance, with too many nutrients, particularly phosphorus, getting into the water.

This fall’s warm, sunny weather has not helped the problem, Moore said.

Moore also fielded comments from the senators.

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Burlington, wanted to know if Gov. Phil Scott is willing to raise taxes and fees to meet water quality needs. Scott is cautious on budget matters, and there’s been some criticism about the timing of spending on Lake Champlain cleanup, which Moore has tried to dispel.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Williston, brought up a report proposing that Vermont set up a Clean Water Authority, which could provide oversight to cleanup efforts that affect the lake while remaining independent of government or politics, and providing continuity beyond any single governor’s administration.

Pearson asked about the backlog of projects awaiting completion, and noted Moore’s response that the state needs a list of ready-to-go projects.

From the audience, questions came about problems with sewage-treatment systems whose effluents feed into Lake Champlain.

In some communities, water runoff from streets, sidewalks and parking lots is channeled into the local sewage-treatment plant, and rainstorms and spring runoff can cause sewer systems to overflow — releasing untreated sewage into rivers.

Those combined systems are “a relic of past development practices,” and sewer and stormwater systems need to be separated, Moore said.

In the meantime, she said, one solution is to find ways to let stormwater soak into the ground before it overwhelms municipal sewer systems.

Other audience questions focused on a planned hops farm in Charlotte and its potential impact on nearby Thorpe Brook; whether there had been studies of cancer caused by impurities in Burlington’s water — Moore was not aware of any such studies; and whether the state tests for herbicides that can accumulate up the food chain.

One comment suggested forming partnerships with Native American tribes on water-related projects, and another proposed that the state Department of Health should be involved with state water-quality initiatives.

There weren’t answers for every question or comment, but Moore welcomed the information.

Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-South Burlington, closed by reminding people that, while the focus often seems to be on Lake Champlain, efforts such as those discussed Tuesday night are “about cleaning up the waterways of Vermont.”

The statewide effort should overcome the view that some Vermonters hold — living far from the lake, why should they care to pay if efforts focus solely on Lake Champlain, he asked rhetorically.

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