Now that elected officials have finally come up with most of the money needed to address water quality issues in Vermont, the state faces another clean-water conundrum: how to spend it.
When lawmakers took up their clean water bill this year, most of the public’s attention was focused on the question of funding. In some respects, however, the money was the easy part. Because figuring out how to deploy those resources, according to Secretary of Natural Resources Julie Moore, “looks like a lot of work.”
“And we know that we have our work cut out for us,” Moore said recently.
Legislation passed this year calls for the creation of as many as 17 so-called “clean water service providers.” Each will get a chunk of money from the state every year to achieve pollution reduction targets in their particular watersheds.
Fulfilling this legislative mandate will require the establishment of an entirely new layer of quasi-governmental bureaucracy. But as of right now at least, no one knows exactly what a clean water service provider will look like, let alone how those providers will go about the task of reducing pollution flowing into lakes and rivers.
“So when you’re creating something new that there’s no precedent to how it’s going to function and work, there’s a risk there, right?” said Jon Groveman, the water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “You’re going to give a lot of money to these entities that we don’t know exactly, you know, what they’re going to look like.”
Groveman said there’s reason to be optimistic about the new clean-water apparatus. Decentralizing responsibility for water quality issues, Groveman said, will give local experts more control over the fate of their watersheds.
Moore said that's one of the reasons she preferred a more diffuse system to administer clean water funds: "So instead of working to manage project implementation and oversight from Montpelier, to get those project managers out closer to where things are being built on the ground," she said.
But Groveman said the new layer of bureaucracy could also make it more difficult to hold a single entity accountable if the state fails to meet its pollution reduction targets.
Moore said she's trying to avoid that outcome by developing clear rules of the road for clean water service providers to follow.
"Obviously there’s a lot of details that need to be worked out," Moore said.
Over the next 18 months or so, Moore and her staff will develop pollution reduction targets for each of the 17 watersheds in Vermont. She’ll also have to find individuals or groups that might want to serve as a region’s clean water service provider.
Moore said existing regional planning commissions and conservation districts are obvious candidates for the job.
"That said, there's nothing that would prevent a new organization to stand itself up in response to an RFP [request for proposal] if they felt like there was an opportunity to do this clean water work," Moore said.
Those opportunities are significant: Vermont will spend close to $2 billion over the next 15 to 20 years on tens of thousands of water quality projects, and about a third of that money will flow to clean water service providers.
Clean water advocates say the return on that money will hinge on the quality of the system that Vermont creates to spend it.