The Vilas Bridge stretches across the Connecticut River. (Reformer file photo)
The Vilas Bridge stretches across the Connecticut River. (Reformer file photo)

MONTPELIER -- The House on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a bill designed to improve the state's waterways.

But even the lead sponsor of H.586, Rep. David Deen, says the water quality legislation is too weak.

"Until the Legislature and the administration finally commit themselves to taking action, H.586 will remain a hollow promise," Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, told lawmakers Wednesday. "We call on the administration to show leadership and help meet the challenges of clean water."

The legislation creates certification and training programs designed to help farmers and towns limit wastewater runoff into the watershed. Revenue to support cleanup efforts was originally included in the bill, but the proposal never gained traction or the administration's support.

Gov. Peter Shumlin is preparing to submit a plan to the Environmental Protection Agency to cut phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain, known as the total daily maximum load (TMDL). The state released an updated plan this month and will finalize its proposal this summer after hearing feedback from the EPA.

Environmentalists say the plan is too weak because it does not include money or regulatory authority to back up the proposed programs. Shumlin said this year he will not raise any state money for cleanup until he has tapped all available federal funds.

But federal funds would have to be matched.

Frustrated by the administration's proposal, the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee scraped together about $4 million for several programs designed to curb runoff into the state's waterways.


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But the bill later stalled after passing the committee.

"We need leadership from the administration," said Deen, who chairs the committee. "Come along with us, administration, and help."

The bill creates a small farm certification program designed to phase in new standards for farming practices, such as regulations on wastewater infrastructure, manure storage and application, the exclusion of livestock from waterways and vegetative buffers.

The agencies of Agriculture, Food and Markets and Natural Resources will work with farmers on the standards.

"Education is likely to be the most powerful tool for reaching those who want to do agriculture right but do not know how," Deen said.

Without additional resources, lawmakers doubt the agencies will be able to visit and work with the 6,000 or more small farms Vermont.

"As it stands now, without funding, this rule-making cannot go forward. But what needs to go forward is the message that all small farmers are subject to the AAPs (acceptable agricultural practices) and they don't know what they are," said Agriculture Chair Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham.

"So this education opportunity is critically important as we go forward," Partridge said.

Farmers have been working with lawmakers to discuss the best way to adjust their business practices to maintain and improve the state's water quality, said Jim McCullough, D- Williston.

"The agricultural community has stepped up to the plate," McCullough said.

The Environmental Protection Agency will issue a plan to reduce the state's phosphorus loading into Lake Champlain by 36 percent, according to the current timeline.

The Shumlin administration wants 20 years to implement this program. The EPA is calling for a shorter timeline.

The state in 2013 received $9.8 million from the EPA, down from $14 million in 2010, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. With proposed cuts to the EPA's budget, the administration is looking for other sources of federal funds to support the cleanup.

The administration is required to report back to lawmakers with funding proposals for additional programs. The Department of Environmental Conservation plans to present a funding proposal to lawmakers next year after it finalizes its plan for Lake Champlain.

H.586 needs final approval from the House before the Senate takes up the bill.