Auditor questions use of lake cleanup funds

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Posted on December 21, 2019 in In The News, News

The Burlington wastewater treatment facility on Lavalley Lane in Burlington. Bacteria process wastewater in the aeration tanks, foreground. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

State Auditor Doug Hoffer says state spending on wastewater and stormwater projects is not giving taxpayers the most “bang for the buck.”

Hoffer found that more than half of the money spent on Lake Champlain cleanup has been dedicated to expensive stormwater and wastewater projects that are not yielding effective results.

Vermont spent about $66 million on water projects in the Lake Champlain watershed during fiscal years 2016-2018. In a non-audit report released Monday, the state auditor’s office took a look at phosphorus reductions based on water quality project type — namely, wastewater, stormwater, agriculture, natural resources, and roads.

Agricultural water projects were the most cost-effective, yielding over eight kilograms of phosphorus reduction per $100,000 spent. Agricultural runoff also accounts for around 54% of the phosphorus loading into the lake, according to the report. Meanwhile, stormwater projects yielded only a 0.1 kilogram reduction for the same amount of money.

The state cannot yet determine the phosphorus reductions from wastewater projects. However, wastewater accounts for only an estimated 4% of phosphorus pollution in the lake, while 35% of state cleanup money for Lake Champlain went to wastewater improvements. Much of the state money for wastewater projects is in the form of low- or no-interest loans.

“You’re not going to get much bang for the buck for those kinds of projects,” Hoffer said of the phosphorus reduction from wastewater and stormwater projects. Altogether, 53% of state funds went to those two types of projects.

He added that while he did not “blame” town and city managers for looking for all available state and federal money for expensive wastewater treatment upgrades, the cost is fundamentally a municipal liability.

“Every town — not just on a lake — has a responsibility to take care of its wastewater, period, even if there was no phosphorus involved,” he said.

The report also says that gaps in the state’s ability to track phosphorus reductions from certain kinds of projects makes it challenging to track the cost-effectiveness of clean water spending.

Vermont has been under a federal mandate to reduce the amount of phosphorus coming into Lake Champlain since 2002. In 2008, the Conservation Law Foundation sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency, saying that Vermont’s federally approved Total Maximum Daily Load would not lead to enough phosphorus reductions to clean up the lake.

In 2016, the EPA approved Vermont’s revamped Lake Champlain TMDL. That same year, Vermont passed Act 64, a landmark Clean Water Act to accelerate water cleanup efforts around the state.

Most of the funding decisions for the state’s share of water quality projects are made by the clean water board. State agencies — namely the Agency of Natural Resources, the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the Agency of Transportation — present clean water budgets to the board, which then approves clean water funding allotments.

Ultimately, ANR is in charge of tracking all of the projects to make sure the state is on track to meet the 34% phosphorus pollution reduction required by the TMDL.

Julie Moore, secretary of ANR, said she appreciated the opportunity to have a “fresh set of eyes” on the state’s clean water spending. But she said the state has to balance the goal of cost-effective phosphorus reductions with other clean water mandates and restrictions on the type of money available.

For example, the state committed to renewing wastewater permits within five years of passing the TMDL, regardless of exact phosphorus reductions from those projects, she said.

“I do think it doesn’t recognize the extent that I really do feel like we’re constrained by state and federal regulations regarding some of the funding sources,” Moore said of the report.

Act 76, a recently passed clean water law, will help address some of that funding challenge by allowing the state to be less reliant on restrictive capital dollars, according to Moore. Under Act 76, 6% of the state rooms and meals tax will be redirected from the general fund to clean water projects.

Also, the new law requires ANR to provide clean water block grants to regional entities that will select and fund clean water projects in their watershed basins. Moore said the agency has to come up with target phosphorus reductions for each basin — as well as a target dollar amount per pound of phosphorus reduced. Leftover funding could go toward water quality projects, such as aquatic organism passage or restorations that have less of an emphasis on phosphorus reduction.

“And so our belief is that it will drive folks to try to identify those most cost effective opportunities so that they will have resources available to do other kinds of work in their basin,” she said.

Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said he agrees with the auditor’s office that the state has been spending too much of its limited water cleanup money on expensive wastewater and stormwater projects.

“Every time the clean water board would put out its proposal for spending money, we would comment you’re not spending enough on natural resources restoration,” he said.

Groveman added that while he felt the state’s aging wastewater infrastructure is a major water quality challenge, it’s largely beyond the scope of limited state clean water dollars.

“Because all of the money that we’re talking about — approximately $25 million a year — that would get sucked up for one (combined sewer overflow) abatement project,” he said.

Groveman added that he feels the federal government has “failed the states” by not providing enough funding for those sorts of infrastructure projects.

This article was originally published on July 15, 2019.

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