This article was originally published in the VT Digger by Mike Polhamus.

Gov. Phil Scott sketched out a plan at a dairy conference Thursday that could include making money from the pollutant plaguing Vermont’s waterways — phosphorus.

The proposal to “crowdsource” ideas to remove phosphorus from cow manure included no specific reduction goals and could take a minimum of 18 to 24 months to implement.

Scott brought along three agency heads to help outline the proposal. They insisted the technology exists to extract phosphorus from manure to be sold or combined with other products.

The presentation was made at the Vermont Farm Show at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction. Dairy farms are the largest contributors to the overload of phosphorus that has caused cyanobacteria blooms and closed beaches on Lake Champlain. The state is under a federal order to reduce the phosphorus levels.

At the same press event, Scott reiterated his opposition to lawmakers who want to raise taxes for the estimated $1.2 billion the lake cleanup will cost the state over the next 20 years.

Scott’s proposed “Phosphorus Innovation Challenge” would offer innovators and entrepreneurs as much as $300,000 to solve the problem by selling cow manure.

Flanked by Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore and Agency of Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling, Scott said he was pursuing a “proactive solution.” He said his approach offered “a new way of thinking about phosphorus and a new opportunity to solve our nutrient issues … creating business opportunities and cleaner water for Vermonters.”

“We believe this approach could allow us to mitigate the impact of phosphorus in more cost-effective ways, produce better outcomes with an opportunity to generate revenue and create jobs,” Scott said.

An economics professor at the University of Vermont said he is “skeptical” of the idea.

“My sense is … if it were economical to do it right now there’d be a business somebody would have started to do it,” said UVM economist Art Woolf. “You wouldn’t need the government to tell you there’s a profit opportunity here.”

The Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation, whose lawsuit led to the federal cleanup order, said he had no position on Scott’s “innovation challenge.”

“We remain focused on the larger and more well-defined task of implementing the regulatory programs and raising the money to actually clean up Lake Champlain,” said Chris Killian.

Another environmentalist, Lauren Hierl, political director at the Vermont League of Conservation Voters, offered more pointed remarks.

“With such urgent needs for cleaning up our waters, (Vermont Conservation Voters) believes we should be spending our limited state resources on programs we already know will reduce water pollution,” Hierl said. “Focusing a significant amount of time and money on unproven technological solutions like those proposed in the phosphorus innovation challenge should not distract us from robustly funding and carrying out the clean-up plan we already have in place.”

Last year, the Legislature ordered the Scott administration to come up with a long-term funding source, but the administration failed to develop one. Instead, Scott’s team argues the state should spend capital funds as well as a small surcharge on the property transfer tax to pay to close a gap in funding. Scott has insisted he will block efforts to raise taxes to pay for the cleanup.

Despite the depth of the problem, officials insisted the Phosphorus Innovation Challenge could be significant. Scott likened the idea to the repurposing of whey, a byproduct from cheese production once considered a pollutant that is now used in protein powders.

Scott’s team praised the governor for trying to get ahead of the problem and pursuing ways to avoid adding more phosphorus to the already overtaxed waterways.

“Government typically responds to things after they emerge,” said Schirling, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. “We’re pretty good at reacting. Being proactive and solving problems ahead of time is new territory.”

Details, however, were few.

Officials said there was no goal for how much pollution would be removed. The timeline laid out could mean that any idea that is found to be acceptable would likely take 18 to 24 months before it could be implemented, according to Moore.

How much Vermonters might pay for these ideas would depend on how good the ideas are, according to Schirling.

Unidentified “experts,” such as scientists and entrepreneurs, would evaluate proposals to determine whether they’re viable, Scott said.

This approach, he believes, will produce results.

“Some of these ideas are out there, and nobody’s listening,” Scott said. “There’s hundreds of them, I’m sure.”

Lawmakers are now drafting legislation that would “declare Lake Carmi to be a lake in crisis.”

The bill would direct Moore to take emergency action to address toxic, green cyanobacterial blooms that closed the lake to swimming, drinking and fishing for several months last year. Farms in that area are responsible for 85 percent of the phosphorus pollution that caused the bacterial outbreak.

Scott said Thursday that he will block legislators from raising revenue if they should attempt it through a bill called S.260, which would place a $40 annual fee on all Vermont parcels.

The proposed law would also establish a surcharge on parcels that have an adverse impact on water quality, including commercial properties with large parking lots and farms that are releasing phosphorus into the waters of the state. Parking lots are considered to be a large phosphorus contributor.

Regeneration Vermont’s take by Michael Colby:

Any attempts to seriously address the dairy/phosphorus/water quality problems must begin with turning off the pollution spigot: the vastly
unsustainable amount of manure created by Vermont’s 135,000 mostly confined cows.

But getting rid of farms is not the solution. Rather, we need to transition away from the industrial, commodity model that is holding all of Vermont hostage – not just the dairy farmers who are getting less than the cost of production for their milk, but also our environment, our culture, and – of course – our cows.

It’s time to free the farmers, free the cows, and clean up our water, with a transition to regenerative organic agriculture that would dramatically decrease herd sizes, put cows back on grass, and produce a product that we can all be proud of once again.

Our farms are essential to maintain, just not within an industrial model that has outlived its welcome by several decades, doing exactly what it was intended to do by Big Ag: consolidate and monopolize, all while externalizing its cleanup costs to taxpayers.

Our farms should be solutions to our problems, not causes. Instead
of gimmicks like Governor Phil Scott’s “phosphorus contest,” Vermont needs to immediately put its resources, energy, and ingenuity into transitioning our
dairy farms away from this model. This is the truly “preventative” solution.

Last year, more than two-dozen agricultural, environmental and business leaders signed onto our “Open Letter” to then Governor-elect Scott with just such a plan. We encourage Governor Scott to stop with the gimmicks, take a look at our plan, and begin working to save our farms.

We can fix this.

Open Letter To Governor-Elect Scott