Let's spring forward on water cleanup

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Ah, the harbingers of spring in Vermont.

Look: You can see the steam rising from sugaring houses; as maple sugar crews scurry to harvest sap, it climbs high into the trees with rising temperatures. The fields are turning green bit by bit, and before too long we'll see buds on the trees. Listen: You can hear the high-pitched trills of red-winged blackbirds, and the ping of baseball and softball bats will soon echo across school fields and parks.

Now, breathe in: If you live downwind from a farm, you know what spring smells like in a state where agriculture remains a way of life.

This comes to mind as the Vermont Agency of Agriculture is reminding farmers that even though the winter manure spreading ban ended on Monday, the state's water quality rules prohibit spreading manure on snow-covered fields and in water-saturated areas that are conducive to runoff into the state's rivers and lakes.

This is of greater concern in the north of the state and higher elevations where fields are still covered in snow, and where dairy operations run on a much greater scale. But water quality is a big issue in Vermont these days, as the state faces a federal mandate — and a moral and ethical imperative — to clean up Lake Champlain and other lakes that have been negatively affected by runoff from agriculture and development, and sewage overflow.

While farmers figure out how to spread their fields and comply with the law, and the state gears up enforcement of violations of those policies, the Legislature has yet to come up with a cohesive plan to fund the state's share of the cleanup. It's high time they get with the program.

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So far this term, a regressive fee has been proposed and set aside. That would be S. 96, which originally envisioned a $40 per parcel fee on every piece of land in Vermont, raising an estimated $40 million to fund the cleanup. But that bill emerged from committee without that funding, or funding of any kind. It passed on its third reading Tuesday.

While establishing a framework for the use of clean water funding is important, a funding bill without funding is a rowboat without oars.

To its credit, the Legislature has set aside about $6 million total over the past two years for clean water. But that's not a reliable steady funding stream. At some point the state needs to get serious about its moral commitment to clean water, and that's a burden that will probably come out of our tax bills, one way or another.

Gov. Phil Scott has proposed taking $8 million in estate tax revenue and applying that to the cleanup. But because that money would come out of the general fund (meaning cuts from someplace else), and because it's Scott's proposal — perhaps, not in that order — the Democrat-controlled Legislature has not embraced the plan. Scott's plan isn't perfect, but it could have and should have been a starting point.

But the session isn't over, and Seven Days quoted House Speaker Mitzi Johnson last week as saying a plan may be forthcoming from Ways and Means Committee chair Janet Ancel. Specifics are not yet on the table, but that plan is said to offer as much as $10 million in new funding.

We eagerly await the specifics. Spring is a time of hope, and we hope that our lawmakers recognize clean water as an important goal that demands vision and innovation.


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