HIGHGATE SPRINGS — Speaker after speaker hammered in the point at the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC)’s annual Tyler Place Dinner Thursday night: the lake isn’t clean, but we’re making progress.
Governor Peter Shumlin spoke first, the only one of the event’s 200 attendees who declined to wear a name tag. “I don’t want to get hit,” he quipped.
He urged people to consider carefully whom they vote into his position in the next election. “I can tell you, governors really matter on issues like this. You’re going to need a governor who’s willing to make some waves, frankly, who’ll not always be popular, but who will get things done — and if they’re not committed to carrying out the work that’s been done, then we will be no better off than we were with Clean and Clear and some of the other efforts that have come forth.”
Governor Shumlin talked about the rising prominence of renewable power in Vermont, saying what was originally mocked as an outlandish political idea has become a reality that will not only create jobs, but help in situations like the lake cleanup. “It helps when little Vermont leads the nation in reducing our carbon footprint, so that blue-green algae has less likelihood of destroying future generations,” he said.
During a half-hour of social time, community members and local leaders interacted with state legislators, such as the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Commissioner Alyssa Schuren, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets’ Secretary Chuck Ross and Speaker of the House Shap Smith, and even friends from Venise-en-Quebec, across the border, who were present as part of a continued effort to improve cross-border communication and coordination.
FNLC Executive Director Denise Smith took the podium to thank their hosts. “I don’t know if everybody realizes that the Tyler, Hill and Otis families donate everything, 100 percent, to this event,” she said. “You never hear the word ‘no’ from them.”
Smith, who has now served three years with the FNLC, talked about the excitement surrounding passage of Act 64, Vermont’s Clean Water Act. “I had just gone to see the Cinderella movie, and I asked that everybody follow Cinderella’s mother’s advice, which was to be kind. Have courage. And to remember, that just because something has always been, doesn’t mean that it always has to be. Tonight, I just want to recognize, I think we’ve made some progress with this, although I still think there’s much work to be done.”
Smith said she has seen kindness manifested in the cooperative efforts of local watershed organizations, dairy co-operatives, the Northwest Regional Planning Commission and others, “working together to redefine and create a better understanding of resilience in our region, as it relates to water resources.” She also cited the ECHO organization’s “year-long process to engage multiple stakeholders in their culture of clean water.”
“There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes meetings, opportunities for people to connect and to really create relationships around clean water,” she said.
Smith said she sees courage in “farmers facing record low milk prices, but they are still investing consistently in water quality improvement practices. There are farmers here tonight that are building new and improved manure storage facilities. I had a farmer reach out to me last year that was looking into purchasing $75,000 worth of new equipment, in order to be able to do reduced tillage practices.”
“I realize that these are all small examples,” she told the attendees, who listened intently as they finished their meals, “but we have to celebrate our accomplishments when we can, so that we’re engaged, that we stay connected and that all of us stay encouraged to keep moving forward.”
Smith presented a certificate of achievement recognizing Bill Howland, the director of the Lake Champlain Basin Program. “Through all the ups and downs and all-arounds, Bill has really progressed and helped Lake Champlain to be one of the most studied lakes and ecosystems in our country,” she said.
Rep. Robert Krebs, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden, was also recognized. Krebs is not seeking reelection, and is also retiring from his position as secretary of FNLC and the Citizens Advisory Committee for Lake Champlain. Smith called Krebs’ departure “a huge loss.”
“Bob has been a stalwart supporter of everything that we do,” she said, “and yet he also approaches it with an engineer’s mind, which I appreciate. He listens to everybody, and makes sure that there is opportunity for compromise, which seems really impossible in this day and age — but there’s opportunity for people to hear each other in Bob’s world, and that is something I just appreciate and love so much about him.”
Krebs’ response: “I live at 134 East Shore Road, in South Hero, and you’re welcome to stop by anytime.”
No one transfixed the audience quite like the University of Vermont Extension agronomist Heather Darby, who tempered her personal stories, comical asides and quirky presentation with the cold, hard facts of soil management progress.
She also recognized that many people are disappointed in the timetable of lake cleanup. “If you’re depressed about it, can you imagine how the rest of us feel, who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars making improvements, doing everything we think we should be doing — and then to not see much?” Darby said. “That’s pretty damn depressing.”
Darby said what keeps her going, “besides all the great micro-breweries that are in the state of Vermont now,” is the fact that people are engaged. When she began working in 2003, 50 acres of cover crop, an essential soil management tool, existed in Vermont. Last year, there were 14,000 acres. This year, there’s 30,000.
Darby said many of these soil management developments have come about because, financially, they just make sense. She told attendees that in 2012, during extreme draught, Vermonters who grew cover cops had an 11 percent increase in yield. “There is no corn company, no biotech company, nothing out there, that can beat good old soil management,” she said.
Though she also discussed precision farming equipment, high-tech gadgetry that she says will be the future for many farmers, beyond her facts Darby’s hardest-hitting point was the importance of these efforts on a human scale. She told attendees about a time her two-year-old son, Flint, ran to her and said, “Mom, I had so much fun playing in the soil.”
“That is why we’re doing this,” Darby said, choking up. “If I can manipulate my two-and-a-half-year-old son to already know that the soil is not dirt, then we will clean up the lake, and people like Flint will have something to enjoy and look forward to in their future, too.”