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Vermont awaits federal advice on plan to clean up Lake Champlain polluted by stormwater runoff

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MONTPELIER, Vermont — Vermont officials posted online a hefty plan Tuesday to reduce pollution in Lake Champlain from stormwater runoff, and now await word on whether it goes far enough in addressing federal concerns.

Decades of runoff have contributed to dirtying Vermont's signature lake and causing excessive algae growth. The pollution has turned the water murky, hurt tourism, depressed property values and increased water treatment costs.

Cleaning up the lake has been a longstanding state goal, but lawmakers and officials say the state is under more pressure now to meet federal targets. If the latest plan doesn't measure up, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could impose expensive regulations on sewage plants in the state.

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation submitted the latest plan of over 200 pages Monday to meet an EPA deadline, and posted it online Tuesday. It could be weeks before the state receives EPA comments on the proposal.

The plan looks at runoff sources, including farms, roads, parking lots, commercial and residential property and forestry. Farms are a major target because agriculture contributes the largest amount of phosphorous to the lake.

The plan calls for increasing farms inspections, especially of small farms, which have been mostly unregulated. It also would require additional stormwater treatment in developed areas; the construction of so-called green infrastructure, such as rain gardens; more stormwater drains along roads; and revised flood plain management rules.

James Ehler of Lake Champlain International, a clean water advocacy group, said the plan does not go far enough and lacks innovative ideas and comprehensive zoning incentives.

"We're trying to build a house with a wrench," said Ehler, the nonprofit's executive director.

According to the plan, Vermont invested millions of dollars between 2002 and 2013 to address water quality. A 2013 report estimates the total cost for cleaning all the state's waterways at $155 million, but Mears says he believes the state can make significant progress with less.

Shumlin said he wants to partner on the cleanup with federal agencies.

"I personally think that we shouldn't raise Vermont money until we get every penny that we can out of the federal government," Shumlin said at a news conference, adding that the state can't take on the project alone.

Department Commissioner David Mears wrote in a letter to the federal agency that he was "not yet confident" the current version of the plan will meet runoff reductions because the state did not receive some information needed from the EPA. But Mears said in an interview he does not expect that to be a major obstacle to final approval.

Mears said that in case Vermont doesn't hear back from the EPA in a few weeks, the state has asked for an extension on an April 30 deadline set for the governor to commit to a plan. Officials want the federal agency's advice before giving Shumlin a final version to consider.

Mears said the state will be constantly evaluating measures called for in the plan and will have to reevaluate certain parts of it if not enough progress is made in improving the lake.

"We may have to dig deeper," he said.

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