Work gets under way on new Community Sailing Center

This is great news for Burlington and Vermont:

The nonprofit Community Sailing Center in Burlington could break ground on a new building as early as September.

“The expectation is that the site work, closing of the area and doing some preliminary foundation work will be complete … before they close up shop for the winter,” sailing center Executive Director Mark Naud said.

The building is part of Waterfront Access North, a major public-private redevelopment project along the north end of Burlington’s lakeshore. The $9.1 million project also includes a new skate park and infrastructure improvements along Lake and Depot streets.

Crews broke ground on Waterfront Access North last August. Naud said workers have cleared the lot on which the new sailing building will sit. He hopes crews can complete the foundation of the building this fall.

“I don’t think that’s an unreasonable goal for us, at all,” Naud said.

The center projects the 21,000-square-foot building will cost $2.5 million to build. Burlington voters in March 2014 approved $500,000 in tax increment financing for the project.

Naud said the entire sailing center capital campaign, which includes dock repairs, new boats and other site improvements totals $5.75 million. The new building will include indoor and outdoor watercraft storage, a classroom, locker rooms and offices for the center’s half-dozen employees.

The Community Sailing Center not only gets lots of folks out on the water, it also uses sailing as the delivery vehicle for a great elementary school science program, which the CSC calls Floating Classrooms.


Senate bill would ban microbeads nationwide

More help is on the way in the effort to remove microbeads from the nation’s waters.

Following the lead of the Vermont Legislature, which voted earlier this year to ban the tiny plastic beads — used in all kinds of personal care products, from toothpaste to facial washes — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has introduced legislation to ban cosmetics containing microbeads nationwide.

“Every morning when we brush our teeth and when we wash our faces at night, we don’t consider these acts to be harmful in any way,” said Gillibrand. “But for many of us, myself included, the toothpaste, soaps and facial washes we’ve had in our homes are leaching into our water supply and damaging the local environment.”

New York and 13 other states are now considering legislation similar to that passed by Vermont in January. In one New York study, microbeads were discovered in 74 percent of water samples taken from 34 municipal and private treatment plants across the state.

Mike Winslow, staff scientist of the Lake Champlain Committee, says plastics have no place in our waterways. “There are numerous studies documenting the physical and toxicological effects of plastics in the environment,” said Winslow. “Some microbeads are the size of fish eggs and look like food to larger fish and other aquatic organisms, an all-too-literal junk food.”

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy has said he supports Gillibrand’s push to ban microbeads, and hopes that manufacturers will not wait till the federal legislation passes to reconsider including microbeads in their products.


Ag Committee approves water quality bill, but without current use penalty

The second committee to approve H.35, the major water quality bill making its way through the Vermont Legislature, decided not to include one of the primary mechanisms to ensure that farmers comply with new rules.

The House Agriculture Committee approved the bill unanimously, but without a section that would have revoked current use property tax reductions for farmers who don’t follow rules designed to reduce phosphorus pollution.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, said she supported the penalty, but her committee determined it was unfair given that it applied to fewer than half of the agricultural acres in the state. The proposal was unpopular among farmers.

“I supported it because it was going to be used as a very, very last resort and these are landowners who have taken advantage of a tax adjustment made for land use. They have seen a benefit in lower tax rates, so they should be held to the same standards of those enrolled in the forest program,” she said.

Water quality advocates applauded the bill, but will likely push to reinsert the current use penalty when it goes through the Senate.

“A unanimous vote of our Agriculture Committee, that’s great to see that unanimous, tripartisan commitment to clean water,” said Lauren Hierl, political director of the Vermont Conservation Voters.

The Agriculture Committee also removed from the bill the funding sources that had been approved by the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.

The bill includes a host of revenue generating sources, but the Agency of Agriculture removed them from the bill and made a recommendation to the House Ways and Means Committee of some possible options, among them a 0.5 percent to 1 percent increase in the rooms tax, a fee on bagged and bulk feed, a fee on bagged and bulk fertilizer, a nondairy certification fee, and a certification fee for small, medium and large farms.

Partridge said the committee is recommending that any new fees must be tied to the pollution they seemed to limit, easy to administer, fair, sustainable and reliable.

On to Ways and Means.

Ice or no, Plattsburgh-Grand Isle ferry keeps chugging

Nice piece from Zach Hirsch of North County Public Radio about the ferry that connects Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Grand Isle, Vt. Unlike the Charlotte-Essex ferry further south, which is currently closed because of thick ice, this route remains open throughout the winter, whether or not the lake freezes over.

The early February day was clear, sunny, and cold. The temperature was about zero, and the lake looked like a white, snowy field, littered with jagged shards of ice. You could make out the route — the a long column of slush, where boats had already broken up the ice.

Up in the pilot house, Captain Mark Duba said these conditions are normal.

“We’ve got stationary ice North. Stationary ice to the South. And we’re running east and west in a channel,” Duba said. He watches that channel through his dark sunglasses, while he kept The Cumberland churning at about 10 miles an hour.

He has been working for the ferry company since the ‘70s.

“Graduated from the University of Vermont, and decided to continue doing this instead of putting a coat and tie on and sitting behind a desk,” he said.

The Cumberland is an icebreaker as well as a ferry. The hull and propellers are heavy duty, and the engine has extra horsepower to push through the ice.

“First you shatter the ice, and then the actual weight of the vessel or the hull on the ice breaks it up,” Duba said.

H. 35: A bill to clean-up state waters, as introduced

Here’s the base line on the legislative efforts this year to clean up Lake Champlain. It’s called H. 35, or House bill 35, and was introduced on January 21, 2015, by Rep. David Deen (D-Westminster), chair of the House committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.

The House bill [ read the PDF here ] is entitled “An act relating to improving the quality of State waters.” It’s the subject of discussion this week in the House, in Deen’s committee and in the Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products and the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.

The legislation’s purpose is to “(1) improve the quality of the waters of Vermont; (2) authorize proactive measures designed to implement and meet ultimately the impending total maximum daily load (TMDL) plan for Lake Champlain, meet impending TMDL plans for other State waters, and improve water quality across the State; (3) identify cost-effective strategies for the State to address water quality issues; and (4) engage more municipalities, agricultural operations, businesses, and other interested parties as part of the State’s efforts to improve the quality of the waters of the State.”

Discussions are already under way about changing the financing options. More than 90 witnesses have already testified at one hearing or another. It’s sure to be one of the most-discussed bills during in Montpelier this year. Should be fun to watch its progress.

The Vermont Legislature’s new website makes it pretty easy. Go to the main page for H.35, and you can see what committee hearings are scheduled, who’s testifying, and read short status updates after each session.


Vermont House approves ban on products containing microbeads

The Vermont House of Representatives, in one of its first major actions of the 2015 legislative session, gave preliminary approval on Tuesday to a bill that would eventually ban the manufacture and sale of products containing plastic microbeads.

The beads are used in some personal care products and are so small that they make it through most sewage treatment systems and end up in the environment. In addition to banning the plastic beads, the bill would mandate the use of biodegradable material to replace microbeads in any products sold in Vermont.

Water scientists say the beads pollute waterways and can be found along Lake Champlain. Manufacturers are already seeking biodegradable alternatives to the products, such as oatmeal, pumice and ground nut shells.

The non-biodegradable beads are so small that flow through nearly all of the state’s wastewater treatment plants. Once they are released into the water, they cannot be removed, according to Lori Fisher, executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee.

“We need to keep them out of the water in the first place,” Fisher said.

Fish feed on the beads mistaking them for fish eggs, scientists say, and the plastics attract waterborne toxins that can attach themselves to fish tissue when consumed. This may contaminate food consumed by humans, through there is no definitive scientific evidence, according to Rachael Miller, executive director of the Granville-based nonprofit Rozalia Project.

The bill still needs final approval from the House and Senate. Congrats to the Lake Champlain Committee, the Rozalia Project and others for their work in pushing this bill to the top of the legislature’s agenda.

State: ‘We’re serious’ about holding farmers accountable for lake cleanup

Three top state officials — Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, Attorney General William Sorrell and Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears — said at a meeting Tuesday night in St. Albans that the state would hold farmers legally accountable if they don’t play their part in cleaning up the Lake Champlain watershed.

Before discussing the enforcement plans, the three outlined a series of measures the state would take, including providing the state staff to help farmers design and pay for projects that would keep pollution-laden runoff from reaching streams and rivers and ultimately Lake Champlain.

But their bottom line was clear.

“We’re serious. We mean it,” Ross said during a 90-minute meeting in the gymnasium of the St. Albans City Hall. “But we’re also serious that we mean we want to help people do the right thing because we know, it’s been shown many times, that most of the agriculture community is engaged, interested, (they) want to make a contribution, have made a contribution and will continue to make a contribution.”

The enforcement could include loss of tax benefits that could potentially cost farmers tens of thousands of dollars a year in increased property taxes. The state also would have the authority to limit livestock.

So it’s still just rhetoric, but it sure sounds like progress. Some farmers who attended the meeting said they worried that they could be subject to sanctions even if they tried to do everything right. But the state clearly considers any fines or restrictions on current-use taxation as last resorts. And the state is ready to spend millions of dollars to help farmers clean up their acts.

At a minimum, this new willingness to put the onus on farmers will help the state figure out whether it’s actually possible to run a Vermont dairy farm in a way that will not degrade water quality in the state’s streams, rivers, ponds and lakes. We all recognize that what everyone is doing now doesn’t work. Let’s see if there’s anything we can do that will make a difference.

A narrow escape: Ceres makes it home

FERRISBURGH, Vt. — Ceres, the flagship of the Vermont Sail Freight Project, was rescued from the ice of Little Otter Creek this past week, in the nick of time.

Ceres and owner Erik Andrus, founder of VSFP, have made some inspiring journeys over the past two years, delivering Vermont farmers’ produce to customers up and down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, traveling all the way to New York City.

They faced one of their biggest challenges this year as late fall turned to winter. VSFP has used the Ferrisburgh fishing access to take Ceres out of the water and then tow it home to Andrus’ farm off Monkton Road. This year, it turned out that the water was too low in Little Otter for Ceres to make it all the way to the ramp, something not discovered until the boat was about halfway between the mouth of Little Otter on Hawkins Bay and the fishing access. Andrus and Ceres found themselves unable to go any further in either direction, and had to anchor and wait for conditions to improve.

The creek iced up early on, and the water level remained low; for awhile it looked like Ceres might have to winter over in the creek, not a pleasant prospect for a wooden boat. But following the big winter storm December 9-11, the lake began rising, and by Christmas was nearly two feet above its lowest level this fall. Then warm weather moved in, and Andrus found that the ice was just thin enough to make it out to the mouth of the creek. On December 27, he was able to get to the Ferrisburgh Town Beach in Kingsland Bay, and the next day to the fishing access on Fort Cassin Road, where he got the boat on to its trailer. On December 29, he did some work adjusting the position of the boat on the trailer and lightening the load for the trip home. Then he towed the boat behind his tractor to the farm.

Turns out that the window for escaping from Little Otter closed pretty quickly behind Ceres and its captain. While there was open water along the shore of Hawkins Bay on Monday afternoon, by Tuesday a cold snap had piled up slabs of ice, and by Wednesday there was a walkable surface that would certainly have been impenetrable for Ceres and her outboard motor.

With this crisis averted, it will be interesting to keep an eye on Andrus, Ceres and the VSFP as they prepare for another season.

Some of the coldest weather of the season froze the margins of Hawkins Bay just a couple of days after Ceres made her escape.

Some of the coldest weather of the season froze the mouth of Little Otter Creek and the margins of Hawkins Bay just a couple of days after Ceres made her escape.

Company seeks approval for underwater transmission line

TDI, the company proposing to run an electrical transmission line along the bottom of Lake Champlain and across south central Vermont, has officially asked the state Public Service Board for a certificate of public good.

The company, a subsidiary of financial firm Blackstone Group, which manages more than $200 billion in assets, is offering the state a benefits package of $298 million over the project’s 40-year lifespan.

Of that, $120 million would go into a fund to aid in Lake Champlain phosphorus cleanup, habitat restoration and recreational improvements.

The company is also paying the state’s transmission utility, Vermont Electric Power Co., or VELCO, $136 million. The state’s electric utilities, which own VELCO, would receive the money based on how much power they provide to customers. The money is expected to be used to reduce electric rates, a state official said.

Tom Dunn, CEO and president of VELCO, said the project could provide benefits to Vermont and the region, but state regulators will decide whether it is of public benefit. He said the money will not affect VELCO’s review of the merits of the project.

“We’re pretty much acting as a conduit for the money,” Dunn said. “We are not going to compromise the reliability of the grid for this project or any other project.”

The $1.2 billion project is designed to carry hydro and wind power from Canada to points south. Among the issues it raises: whether burying the line in the lake bottom will stir up sediments containing pollutants; and what effect the pipeline will have on wildlife, including fish spawning grounds.

It will behoove the PSB to ask lots of questions, no matter how much money the Blackstone Group is promising the state — including what happens at the end of the project’s 40-year lifespan.

Is more money for farmers the best answer for the lake?

Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, came to Burlington last week and with great fanfare, surrounded by politicians, with Lake Champlain as the backdrop, announced that the feds will spend $45 million to help farmers reduce the amount of phosphorus-laden run-off that reaches the lake.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will administer the money for projects in Missisquoi Bay, St. Albans Bay and South Lake Watersheds — areas surrounding Lake Champlain where blue-green algae blooms are most frequent.

Over the past decade, the USDA invested $46 million in similar programs in Vermont. Vilsack said the federal money must now be rolled out to farmers faster. He said the new conservation money will flow to farmers over the next five years.

The money will be used to provide farmers with the technical assistance to develop new farming practices, including cover cropping, different tillage systems, planting vegetative buffers between fields and waterways, and other fertilizer management practices designed to keep nutrients on fields. Vilsack said USDA is committed to keeping six NRCS conservationists on the ground in Vermont to assist farmers.

Good news, right? Well, if so, why are the folks who have historically been most concerned about the health of the lake not jumping for joy?

Their worry is that spending money to make changes around the edges of the way Vermont farms operate is never going to be enough, that propping up the dairy industry, as it exists today, with more federal cash is not the answer.

What’s required, and what’s so conspicuously missing from the solutions being offered today by the state and federal governments, is a sustained commitment to do job number one: to clean up the lake. That won’t happen unless there are fundamental changes in the way farms do business.

An interesting parallel to the current situation with phosphorus run-off is the problem posed historically by acid rain. Acidic precipitation compromised water quality in lakes and ponds and killed trees across the Northeast. It was caused by pollution — mostly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — spewing from fossil-fuel-burning power plants in the Midwest. Congress amended the Clean Air Act to include strict limits on these emissions; cap-and-trade programs in pollutants were established; and automobile emissions were cleaned up significantly via catalytic converters. The acid-rain problem, while hardly solved, has been dramatically reduced.

Advising farmers on managing the vast amounts of phosphorus they’re putting on farm fields may be fine, but wouldn’t it be preferable to look for ways to meet our demand for milk and other farm products that don’t lead directly to polluted streams, rivers, ponds and lakes?

Clearly, we all need to agree on the goal, which is clean water in Vermont’s lakes and ponds. We would all hope that we can have both a healthy dairy industry and clean water. But clean water has to come first. Once we agree on that, we can have a meaningful discussion about whether it makes sense to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to encourage farmers to cling to the status quo, to farming practices that are threatening the long term health of the lake.