Potential govs debate water rights

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By JASON STARR

All five candidates for Vermont governor agreed at a forum last week that access to clean water is a human right.

This is the common denominator Lake Champlain International Executive Director James Ehlers hoped to establish when he organized the event, but differences were apparent in the lengths each candidate would go to crack down on water polluters.

The Clean Water Economy Forum at St. Michael’s College was held as Act 64, Vermont’s Clean Water Act passed in 2015, and Vermont’s revised total maximum daily load plan for Lake Champlain phosphorous reduction both enter early stages of implementation.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture released new “required agricultural practices” this spring to guide farmers in keeping agricultural pollution out of rivers that lead to the lake. These practices were formerly unenforced guidelines called “accepted agricultural practices.”

Democratic candidate Sue Minter took the hardest line, responding with an emphatic yes to a question about whether citizens should be able to sue polluters to enforce state water quality laws.

“State government can’t be everywhere,” she told the audience of roughly 75. “It is up to citizens to help enforce these rules.”

Peter Galbraith, a fellow Democratic contender, also supports citizen enforcement. If access to clean water is a human right, he said, people should be able to defend that right in court.

Democrat Matt Dunne offered a qualified yes to the idea, cautioning citizen enforcement could be abused. Republican Phil Scott said he trusts state agencies and municipal governments to ensure enforcement, and that citizen enforcement isn’t necessary.

“The state has enough authority, and we have a strong environmental ethic,” Scott said.

Republican Bruce Lisman said citizen enforcement would be too chaotic. He suggested setting up phone lines for anonymous complaints to state agencies about people breaking agricultural practices.

Each candidate offered a glimpse of how they would structure their administrations to tackle the lake’s phosphorous pollution problem.

Scott would focus on increasing capacity at municipal wastewater treatment plants, where recurring untreated sewage overflows during rainstorms have contributed to the problem. Scott would evaluate the idea of overflow storage for when treatment plants become overwhelmed.

Lisman said his administration would include one person responsible for lake cleanup and would take inventory of state and federal funding possibilities. He would then focus on northern Lake Champlain, where toxic algae blooms from phosphorous overload are most pronounced.

Galbraith’s first step would be appointing Agency of Natural Resources and Agency of Agriculture secretaries able to estimate a cost to return to a pristine lake, “then determine how far we can go. I want to go as far as possible,” he said.

Minter said the time for new evaluations is passed. She would rely on Act 64 to get to a cleaner lake. In addition to working with farmers on the new agricultural requirements, she would prioritize wastewater treatment upgrades and sell state bonds to raise funds to complete them. She would also make sure land developers build with stormwater retention as part of their projects.

“We’ve got a plan,” Minter said. “Now we need to implement it, and that’s what I’ll do as governor.”

Dunne would put funding into the state capitol bill to meet the requirements of the new TMDL plan and create a coalition among Vermont, Canada and New York to ensure the other entities bordering the lake make similar investments.

“We have gotten behind in our infrastructure,” Dunne said. “It’s our time now to make that kind of once-in-a-century investment, because if we don’t and we don’t do it quickly, the lake will die. All the economic development strategies will not matter if Vermont is the state with the dead lake.”

LCI, a Colchester nonprofit, presented the forum with support from several sponsors.

Questions crafted by the sponsors were provided to candidates in advance. The forum concluded with a half-hour of audience questions.

Ehlers reminded the audience the next Vermont governor was in the room and encouraged citizens to maintain public pressure to keep clean water at the top of the next governor’s agenda.

“There is no disconnecting the water cycle from the life cycle,” he said.