Douglas begins search for lake cleanup funds

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(Host) Later this fall the Douglas administration will unveil new initiatives to clean up Lake Champlain. The plan includes an effort to find hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for new pollution control efforts. Officials are discussing whether to accelerate the timetable to clean up the most polluted parts of the lake.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) This summer, the pollution problem in northern Lake Champlain became a crisis. Toxic algae bloomed in Missisquoi Bay. Quebec closed beaches on its side of the border. Vermont officials assured the public they were working on new initiatives to help clean up the big lake.

The main culprit is phosphorus, a common nutrient that runs off from farms and also from urban areas. A phosphorus reduction program approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency will cost $139 million over 14 years.

But money is tight. So a key element of the state’s clean up plan is to hold what officials are calling a “funders summit” this winter. Eric Smeltzer, the Lake Champlain specialist with the Agency of Natural Resources, says the idea is to reach out to as many funding sources as possible.

(Smeltzer) “And put on the table the entire funding need in all these different program areas and try to gain some commitments and understanding. The role that each of these funding sources can and should play for the phosphorus reduction plan for Lake Champlain.”

(Dillon) The money would go to help farmers manage their manure. It would pay for sewage treatment plant upgrades. And it would help towns do a better job of maintaining their dirt roads to keep sediment out of streams.

The financial need is huge, and Smeltzer says it’s unlikely that funders will promise to pay for the entire $139 million plan.

(Smeltzer) “But we do think it’s realistic to get started and look at least at the near term of the next year or few years. The price tag is high but the benefits I think are even higher. Just the environmental benefits of a clean Lake Champlain carry into all kinds of different facets of Vermont’s economy, tourism, and it helps attract business.”

(Dillon) The state is also looking at targeting certain areas of the lake – such as Missisquoi Bay and Saint Albans Bay – for more intense clean up efforts. The current plan calls for pollution reduction targets to be met by 2016. The state may try to accelerate the clean up to 2009.

Chris Kilian of the Conservation Law Foundation says more money will be welcome. But he says given the huge federal deficit and the tight state budget, it’s not likely much more public money will be available.

(Killian) “Unless we have a very significant private sector contribution from the dischargers that are in many cases causing the problem we’re not going to get there. The way to get there, in addition to just asking the taxpayers to pay for more clean up, is to enforce the laws that are supposed to keep the lake clean. And there’s nothing standing in the way of the Agency of Natural Resources and the state of Vermont doing that right now.”

(Dillon) Loris Fischer of the Lake Champlain Committee says her organization asked Governor Douglas to hold a funders summit last spring. She says that in addition to finding money, the state needs to move up the clean up deadlines to 2009.

(Fischer) “That goal has been broadly supported by New York and Vermont and Quebec residents since the plan was first adopted way back in 1996.”

(Dillon) The Douglas Administration is expected to provide details of its Lake Champlain plan within the next few weeks.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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