Hierl: Clean water will take new investments, more protective regulations

by Lauren Hierl, Political Director, Vermont Conservation Voters Governor Scott and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources have declared this “Clean Water Week” in Vermont. While I believe it is important to highlight the value of clean water, we have a lot of work to do to achieve clean water for all Vermonters. It makes me wonder: what are we actually celebrating this week? To me, clean water means ensuring all Vermonters have safe, healthy water coming out of their faucets – whether they live in Bennington, Burlington, or Bradford. We can celebrate the work being done in communities across the state, but we’re not there yet.

Clean water also means all Vermonters having confidence their favorite swimming or fishing hole – whether at a lake, pond or river – is free of a blue-green algae outbreak or pollution from a sewage overflow. We’re not there yet.

While I applaud the administration’s focus on the importance of clean water, and believe we should acknowledge the hard work being done by watershed groups and many others to clean up our waterways, achieving clean water for all Vermonters will require a significant investment and stronger policies to protect us from pollution. Beyond celebrating, we need substantive action.

At the beginning of this year, Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce released a report estimating that Vermont needs to invest an additional $62 million per year to improve water quality and meet our obligations under Vermont’s Clean Water Act, Act 64. While developers, farmers, and municipalities will pay their share of those expenses, the state needs to increase its investment in critical water infrastructure and in projects that will make a meaningful difference in cutting pollution.

Clean water will also require better policies to ensure toxic chemicals aren’t leaking into our drinking water supplies, as people in North Bennington and other Vermont communities know all too well. Numerous recommendations were brought to the Legislature by an expert Chemical Use Working Group earlier this year. These recommendations include: more robust testing of drinking water wells for contaminants; better chemical inventories; better regulation of toxics in our food packaging and children’s products; and better tools for citizens to protect themselves if they have been harmed by exposure to a toxic chemical. Vermonters are relying on our elected officials and government agencies to act on these recommendations.

Improving protections for Vermonters from pollution sources is common sense. But with many competing priorities and intense pressure from industries who profit from lax policies, investing in clean water and improving chemical policies can fall by the wayside at the State House. This year, for example, the Scott administration and Legislature failed to identify and enact a long-term sustainable funding source for clean water, and let a bill (S.103) stall out that would have improved protections for Vermonters from toxic contamination.

While we celebrate Clean Water Week, let’s all take a moment to recognize that we can and must do more. I hope your celebration will include taking a moment to call Governor Scott and your local Senators and Representatives to make clear that clean water isn’t just a buzzword, but something we need to invest in and protect with strong policies – including new, long-term funding for clean water and passing S.103 to strengthen our toxic chemical regulations. We all know that clean water is essential to the health of our families, communities, and economy, so let’s take meaningful action to achieve it.