Farm visits within plan

BURLINGTON — With area waters plagued by blue-green algae, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and the nation’s top agriculture official this morning announced $45 million in funding over five years to reduce farm pollution in Lake Champlain.

This is a $15 million increase over the previous Farm Bill.

In addition, Gov. Peter Shumlin this morning unveiled the creation of action teams comprised of 16 state regulators and inspectors that will begin work in the Lake Carmi watershed immediately. That work will include visits to farm operations.

The announcements came after two weeks of public outcry over the condition of the northern reaches of Lake Champlain, its tributaries, and Lake Carmi in Franklin.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack joined the state’s Congressional delegation at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center on the Burlington waterfront for the announcement of $45 million over five years focused on reducing farm runoff and erosion in the northern Lake Champlain watershed.

Gov. Peter Shumlin announced a plan to concentrate Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets (AAFM) and Agency of Natural Resource staff in Franklin County to work with area landowners to reduce phosphorous runoff into St. Albans Bay, Missisquoi Bay and Lake Carmi.

Federal funds

The $45 million will fund the work of the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Vermont over the next five years and includes and additional $1 million for cover cropping occurring now.

The funds were authorized as part of the new federal Farm Bill, and are a $15 million increase over the previous funding levels, according to staff for Leahy. The funds will be spent in the watersheds of the three most polluted segments of Lake Champlain – Missisquoi Bay, St. Albans Bay and the South Lake.

“We are dedicated to protecting and improving this beautiful and unique natural resource,” Vilsack said. “This historic USDA investment will help improve water quality while assisting producers in establishing and expanding sound conservation practices.”

NRCS works with farmers to identify appropriate best management practices for their fields and typically pays 75 percent of the implementation costs. Such practices can include cover cropping, buffers, manure incorporation such as injection, grassed waterways, and other practices intended to reduce manure runoff and erosion.

The programs, however, are entirely voluntary.

“With a team of dedicated conservation experts working one-on-one with proactive landowners, we will continue to focus on the future of this vital basin,” Vilsack said in a written statement.

Leahy said, “We are at a moment of great need, but also a great moment of opportunity to improve Vermont’s agricultural water quality. Our farmers are ready. They are well informed and eager to participate — so-much so that we quickly went through our original allotment of USDA funds this year, and farmers still continue to apply.”

“Milk prices are up, giving farmers some room to take on new projects, and Vermonters strongly support a cleaner lake,” Leahy added. “Now is the time to act, and these funds will contribute greatly to helping us meet that goal.”

NRCS has made fields in the Missisquoi River basin identified as critical source areas for phosphorous runoff a priority in recent years, with mixed results, as the practice needed on the field is not always the practice adopted. [See the accompanying interview with water quality expert Julie Moore for details.]

Asked this morning about requiring mandatory regulation, Vilsack replied, “We have found that at the USDA that voluntary conservation practices is particularly effective.”

Yet in the Lake Champlain basin years of voluntary programs and $46 million for NRCS over the last 10 years appear to have failed to make a difference, as some of the worst algal blooms in years are currently occurring in the lake.

On that topic, James Ehlers, head of the Lake Champlain International, said, “All that matters is what shows up in the water, and the water’s getting worse.”

State initiatives

The state’s new action teams will begin with an immediate effort in the Lake Carmi watershed, targeting known sources of phosphorous, according to an announcement from Gov. Peter Shumlin’s office this morning.

ANR and AAFM staff will be conducting inspections, monitoring and educating landowners, and will “emphasize compliance when and where appropriate,” the announcement states.

Although this is work the two agencies are already doing, concentrating their efforts in a single geographic area “represents a new and concentrated deployment of resources,” according to the Governor’s office.

This is a change in how resources are being used, not a commitment of new staff or funds. It is hoped that lessons learned from this effort can be applied elsewhere in the future.

State staff will be targeting runoff from farms, roads and developed areas, as well as water treatment plants and failed septic systems. Their efforts will be consistent with the pollution reduction measures outlined in the TMDL (total maximum daily load) submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency by the administration earlier this year.

The TMDL establishes pollution limits for each segment of Lake Champlain and outlines a plan for reducing phosphorous runoff below those limits.

Shumlin, however, cautioned in the release against expecting immediate results, noting that the condition of the lake is the result of decades of pollution and will require a long-term, sustained effort to change.

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Messenger staff writer Elodie Reed contributed to this story from the press conference this morning.