Commentary: Lake Cleanup’s Skewed Spending Priorities (July, 2019)

by John McClaughry

Under a directive from the Federal EPA, Vermont has spent $66 million over the past three years to cope with serious phosphorus pollution in parts of Lake Champlain.  State Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer has just released a Report on how that money is being spent, and the results obtained.

Before getting to Hoffer’s findings – which are very significant – it’s worth asking why the Champlain Basin has a serious phosphorus problem. Lakes surrounded by wilderness rarely exhibit such a problem.  Naturally occurring phosphorus in the soil leaches into waterways and lakes, and arrives at an equilibrium without creating the blue green algae blooms that have seriously reduced Lake Champlain’s water quality.

The problem arises when we humans add phosphate (usually from mines) to a watershed at a rate that nature can’t accommodate without unhappy effects. Why are we bringing in phosphorus?  Because it stimulates plant growth and improves nutrition of animals that eat the plants. According to the Auditor’s Report, 54% of the phosphorus entering Lake Champlain originates with agriculture.

Farmers spread phosphorus fertilizer onto crop fields. The crops, along with purchased phosphorus-containing feed, are fed to dairy cows to maximize milk yield. Dairy farms return manure to the fields, including the phosphorus that doesn’t leave with the milk.

As is often the case, we can thank the government for accelerating this process. Former Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee reminds us that the Comprehensive Study of the Future of Vermont that was done after the 1927 flood stated that every farmer should apply at least 200 pounds of phosphorus per acre per year. In the 1950s the local agencies of the Federal Agriculture Department constantly promoted phosphorus addition to improve milk yields. Apparently nobody in that Department thought to ask where that phosphorus would end up.

Agriculture is, as noted, by far the biggest contributor to the problem. But homeowners and gardeners also make use of NPK fertilizer that finds its way into the Lake. So do dog owners. Phosphorus is a component of dog food (but curiously, not cat food). It would be prohibitively expensive and impractical to regulate or prohibit phosphorus usage by a hundred thousand homeowners, compared with hundreds of dairy farms and wastewater plants in the Basin.

The Auditor’s Report notes that the in the first three years since enactment of the Clean Water Initiative in 2015, the State spent “nearly $100 million, more than two thirds of it in the Lake Champlain Basin.” The legislature wisely required that spending to “achieve the greatest water quality gain for the investment.”

Alas, it didn’t. “Wastewater projects received the largest share of State clean water funding in the Basin even though the share of phosphorus pollution from this source is lowest by far. Wastewater projects account for 4% of phosphorus pollution, but wastewater projects accounted for 35% of expenditures.” The Report explains that two thirds of that spending was on low or no-interest loans from a revolving fund, and the remaining one third came from another fund “provided to help municipalities to pay back … the loans.” That is, the State gives you the money to help pay back the loan you got from the State.

One hundred thousand dollars spent on reducing agricultural phosphorus migration into the Lake captures 18 pounds annually (Report p. 17. Not a misprint). This most cost-effective result is the removal of one medium-sized Thanksgiving turkey of phosphorus! The data is complicated for wastewater treatment, but it’s a reasonable estimate that its capture rate is far below that agricultural level. The Report continues: “95% of all state clean water expenditures did not yield any measurable reduction in phosphorus.” Ouch!

So why are we spending any money at all on such amazingly ineffective projects? A major reason is that municipal governments that operate sewage plants are always aggressively seeking funding for operation, maintenance, upgrades and extensions. They knew where to go for the money, and got there first with their hands out. Never mind the legislative mandate about cost effectiveness.

In a commentary that appeared in February 2015 I predicted this would happen: “The State response now races far beyond the original problem – reducing phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain. Now it includes the entire enviro wish list of ecosystem restoration, stormwater management, wastewater treatment, nutrient management, erosion stabilization, buffer zones, highway maintenance, and much more. A program for “reducing phosphorus pollution in the Lake” has become an all- inclusive environmental improvement program, with a new taxpayer funding source.”

Is there a better way to reduce the phosphorus loading of Lake Champlain by 34% in 20 years, as EPA and the state have agreed to do? Probably, but Montpelier officialdom has made its choices, and cost effectiveness has not been a leading criterion.

— John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Deanne August 2, 2019 at 9:57 pm

Appalling, but not surprising. Either they won’t learn or they don’t care (or maybe both).

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