Bennington College hosts forum on state clean water bill


BENNINGTON — Cleaning up the state's waterways will be an "all-in" effort.

That was the message during last week's forum at Bennington College on new laws that will be phased in over the next few decades.

Roads, farms, forests, wastewater treatment plants and paved surfaces will all have new management plans, requirements or upgrades over the next several decades at a cost of millions of dollars under the Vermont Clean Waterways Act, or Act 64, signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in June.

"We knew there were practices that were degrading water quality," State Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, a member of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, told the 20 attendees on Thursday. "And we had an obligation under Vermont's delegated authority under the federal Clean Water Act to address these declines and to prevent future declines."

The new regulations will require the state's 246 municipalities to retrofit its roads to prevent storm water runoff that could carry pollutants, according to Rebecca Ellis, senior counsel for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. It also marks a "sea change" for the state's agriculture industry.

New rules — like the distance of crops and manure from surface water — will come with increased enforcement, she said.

It was the third forum held this fall by Campion and the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action. Previous topics were the state's energy efficiency goals and education reform bill Act 46.

Campion, Ellis and Lauren Hierl, political director for Vermont Conservation Voters, gave attendees background and took questions.

Act 64 was sparked by algae blooms in Lake Champlain, lakes, streams, rivers and other waterways. The element, common in wastewater discharge and agricultural runoff, has turned some waterways a pea-soup shade of green in recent years. The federal Environmental Protection Agency pulled the state's lake waterway management plan in 2011 with the implication that the state develop its own plan or the federal government would step in.

"When there's algae like that, you not only hurt the quality of life in Vermont, but also the economics," Ellis said. Homeowners have seen declining property values, she said, and some waterways become unusable from algae in the summer.

At one point in her presentation, she built upon an old expression: "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago."

"Here in Bennington County, where many of the waterways still have high quality, you're doing what should be done at the right time," she said.

The big question in the room on Thursday was how the projects will be funded.

The capital budget includes several million dollars for technical assistance and projects. Another funding source for technical assistance and projects, Ellis said, will be a 0.2 percent surcharge on the property transfer tax, which will raise $5.3 million in fiscal 2016.

The act requires the 11,000 miles of town roads and 3,000 miles of state roads be upgraded over the next several decades to prevent runoff into waterways. Standards would be finalized in 2017. Municipalities would have until 2021 to develop a plan for their roads and 20 years to implement it.

Ellis said upgraded roads would be better equipped to handle storms and require less money for maintenance.

Farming practices that were previously just suggested will soon be a requirement, and some will be tightened. Farms statewide will be required to follow Required Agricultural Practices (RAP); the draft was released last month and a public comment period will begin next year.

Under new proposed rules, farmers wouldn't be able to apply manure to crops that are fewer than 25 feet away from surface waters, increased from 10 feet, or 10 feet from a ditch. A manure stack would have to be 200 feet away from surface waters or a well, up from the previous 100 feet. Training and certification for individuals who apply manure would be required every five years.

By 2028, all impervious areas that are three acres or greater will have to be retrofitted to prevent storm water runoff, Ellis said. And many wastewater treatment plants would have to be retrofitted to prevent phosphorus discharge.

Ellis said one hotly debated topic was the placement of "small farm" with 10 or more acres under the jurisdiction of the state's Agency of Agriculture.

The agency has also hired additional staff for enforcing the regulations.

"The thought of the [department] coming to your farm for an inspection is a totally new thing," she said. But the goal is more to work with farmers to find a solution, she said, and to educate them on pollution prevention.

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Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979


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