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Officials Ready To Launch Shumlin's Water Quality Plan

Taylor Dobbs
From left, Attorney General Bill Sorrell, Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross and Commissioner of Environmental Conservation David Mears listened to comments about the state's water quality plans at a meeting in St. Albans.

When Gov. Peter Shumlin made water pollution and cleaning Lake Champlain a major focus of his inaugural address earlier this month, officials in charge of preventing that pollution got a boost.

That's because one of the biggest obstacles to cleaner water in the past has been poor funding and what critics have called a lack of political will in Montpelier.

Now, the state's top officials overseeing agriculture and water quality are ready to launch a major effort to prevent water pollution by expanding outreach and enforcement.

The leaders held a meeting in St. Albans Monday to share their plans and hear from farmers and the public.

Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross acknowledged that 40 percent of the lake's harmful phosphorus pollution comes from farms. But he said the challenge is not convincing farmers they need to do better.

"Every time I've been engaged in a conversation with the farmers around this state and the leadership of the farming community, they understand, they care, they own their responsibility and they want to help out and do the right thing," he said.

And while increased enforcement authority is on Ross' wish list, he says that's not going to be the silver bullet.

"We are not going to enforce our way to a solution." - Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross

Increased funding will help his agency far more "to do outreach, education, track the data, provide technical assistance, do the inspections and help people come into compliance," he said. "Because at the end of the day, maybe some people want to talk about enforcement. We are not going to enforce our way to a solution."

Expanded enforcement, though, has some farmers worried - even those like Richard Longway, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on voluntary water quality measures at his farm.

He says in the past, he's welcomed agriculture inspectors on his farm to help him with water quality issues.

"Now I'm getting scared to have anybody come," he said. "Because am I doing something wrong? No, I don't. But I don't want to have a hammer over my head, I guess."

Despite this tension, Secretary Ross says his agency will prioritize helping farmers prevent pollution over waiting until damage is done.

"We don't want to get to this place," he said. "We do not want to be in a place where we have to do enforcement, and quite frankly most of the time we don't. We usually get people to comply by having a conversation with them that's based upon education outreach, technical assistance and helping them understand how to comply.

An infusion of federal and state money in recent months will help those efforts. But much of the legal power and some funding depends on the Legislature, which ultimately has to vote on the proposals Shumlin put forth in his inaugural address.

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