MONTPELIER — The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) — relying on a little known provision in state statutes – filed a petition with the Secretary of Agriculture this morning demanding that certain farmers in the Missisquoi Bay watershed change their practices.

CLF has asked Secretary Chuck Ross to require farmers with fields identified as critical sources of phosphorous and sediment to adopt field practices that will reduce the pollution coming from their land.

Any decision made by Ross would be appealable to the Vermont Environmental Court by either CLF, farmers impacted by Ross’s decision, or another party.

The statutory provision allows residents in watersheds having a basin plan to petition the Secretary of Agriculture to require best management practices in order to meet the state’s water quality goals.

Secretary Ross must hold a public hearing on the matter within 60 days and issue a timely written decision supported by findings of fact. He also will have to determine whether there is sufficient funding for the implementation of best management practices. If not, then the state may have to come up with funding to support their implementation.

“Right now the bay is facing a crisis and we can’t afford to rely solely on voluntary changes any more,” said Anthony Iarrapino, senior attorney for the environmental watchdog group. “Unless we have every producer being held to the same standard we are not going to make progress in Missisquoi Bay.”

CLF will also be looking at the basin plan for St. Albans Bay, said Iarrapino, as well as other basin plans as they are drawn up.

Critical sources

In 2011, the Lake Champlain Basin Program hired Stone Environmental to determine where phosphorous and sediment entering the lake are coming from. Using multiple sets of data scientists identified areas that because of soil type, land use, slope and proximity to water were critical sources of pollution within the bay.

Researchers found that three quarters of the sediment and phosphorous entering the bay was coming from just 20 percent of the land, much of it agricultural.

Since then, numerous efforts have been made to entice the owners of those fields to adopt best management practices that would minimize the pollution coming off of their land with mixed results. The Friends of Northern Lake Champlain announced another such effort this morning (see accompanying article for details.).

“It’s neither fair nor effective for some agricultural producers to do all the heavy lifting while their neighbors sit on the sidelines,” said Iarrapino.

When only some farmers along a river make improvements while their neighbors downstream continue to operate as usual, people come to believe progress can’t be made, suggested Iarrapino.

Scientists have determined what practices work and where they need to be implemented, he pointed out. “We’ve invested millions of public dollars in research and we have a fair degree of confidence in the output of that research,” said Iarrapino. “I’m hoping the secretary will recognize the value of that research for guiding regulation, not just voluntary programs.”

“We’ve got to have better returns on our investment,” he added.

As part of the critical source area study, Stone Environmental used its model to examine the impact of best management practices on a typical farm in the watershed, one that had a mix of crops, 100 to 200 animals and a history of using conservation practices. When information on the farm’s use of buffers, a grassed waterway and animal exclusion fencing was incorporated into the model, the results showed that each of those methods reduced phosphorous runoff from the affected areas by 30 to 60 percent.

Best management practices such as manure incorporation and the active, engaged use of nutrient management plans can have a financial benefit for farmers while also improving water quality, noted Iarrapino. Such practices can reduce fertilizer costs and improve soil quality. Other best practices reduce erosion, keeping nutrient rich soils on the farm and out of the water where those nutrients encourage the growth of blue green algae.

“They’re going to find that doing the right thing for clean water is doing the right thing for the bottom line for their farm business,” said Iarrapino.

Currently, most of the funding for best management practices comes from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other federal agencies. Requirements for federal programs can be rigid, and Iarrapino said CLF has heard from farmers who would prefer to work with the state. But the state has far fewer resources available. The petition is a way of potentially increasing state involvement.

Calling the question

Previously, CLF successfully petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider pollution limits for Lake Champlain. Although scientists have determined the needed limits, and the Dept. of Environmental Conservation and Agency of Agriculture have agreed on a plan to reduce pollution from the full range of land uses in the lake’s watershed, the Shumlin administration has not yet put additional state funds into the cleanup effort.

Last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin told the Messenger that he would be willing to use state funds, but first felt that he had an obligation to try to secure as much federal funding as possible.

For Iarrapino, the petition is one way to “call the question” of whether the administration is willing to put additional state resources into restoring water quality in Lake Champlain.

The Dept. of Health has issued more high alerts for algal blooms in Missisquoi Bay than any other segment of Lake Champlain. The blooms can cause illness in humans, but can kill other wildlife in the lake. By taking oxygen out of the water, the blooms suffocate fish.