ST. ALBANS — Leaders of the St. Albans Area Watershed Association (SAAWA) are advocating mandatory regulation of agricultural lands with the group’s president saying it is time to set aside fears of a backlash from farmers.

Lobbying for changes to land use regulations will be a primary focus of the organization over the next 18 months, said SAWA president Steve Cushing.

The local watershed association was to hold its annual meeting Friday night where the new efforts were to be further discussed. The meeting at St. Albans Bay follows a summer that saw some of the worst blue-green algae blooms in the recorded history of St. Albans Bay.

An excess of nutrients in the water, particularly phosphorous, feeds algae blooms. Phosphorous reaches the bay through erosion of topsoil, erosion within the streams themselves and runoff of stormwater and manure.

“The elephant in the room has always been the 60 to 70 percent of nutrients that are running off agricultural lands,” said Cushing in an interview on Friday.

“What’s happened over the last few decades is that the family farm has been replaced by medium to large dairy operations that rely on corn for feed,” said Cushing.

The amount of land in corn production within the St. Albans Bay watershed has increased dramatically, said Cushing. And some of that land is increasingly being cultivated by farmers who do not reside in the watershed, but are simply using the land to raise corn for cows housed elsewhere and as an outlet for manure, he added.

With corn production, “you have six months of the year where there is no vegetative cover,” said Cushing. Those bare lands are adjacent to streams and rivers that feed into the bay.

In a copy of his planned remarks for the meeting, Cushing noted that because of the ban on spreading manure in the winter months and the inability to spread while corn is growing in the summer, farmers must spread manure in the spring and fall – precisely when the state has been experiencing its highest levels of rainfall.

The state has relied on voluntary federal programs offering financial incentives for the adoption of best practices such as cover crops to reduce erosion and buffer zones between fields and waterways.

“Voluntary incentives have not achieved the results everybody hoped and it’s time to start talking about mandatory requirements to address runoff from agricultural lands,” said Cushing. “The argument has always been (farmers are) struggling so much now this will put them out of business.”

There are land use practices, such as contour plowing, that require little additional spending by farmers, Cushing pointed out.

By raising the issue of mandatory regulation, SAAWA may be doing the state a favor, he suggested. “People have been so reluctant to do this for fear of a farm backlash,” said Cushing.

“Would any elected official advocate a policy that would benefit the finances of a business over a clean lake?” Cushing asked rhetorically. “That’s what they’ve been advocating – the business interests of agriculture over clean lake.”

In his prepared remarks Cushing also recognized the responsibilities of homeowners and developers for a clean lake. Developers are required to have stormwater permits for both the construction and post-construction phases of their developments.

Homeowners are required to have functioning septic systems, and new regulations may require permits for the addition of more than 500 feet of impervious surface at homes adjacent to public waters, Cushing noted.

This is by no means the watershed group’s first foray into the issue of water quality regulations. Discussion during last year’s annual meeting were a case in point.

Former SAAWA president Eric Wolinsky, who spoke out in support of greater government actions on pollution from all sources, said, “Unless and until we continue to put pressure on (officials)… for stiffer regulations we are not going to clean up the lake.”

Cushing then added, “This watershed association has sometimes been accused of being too controversial, and we’re not going to shy away from it.”

However, speaking directly to agriculture’s contribution to water quality problems, James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, who was the guest speaker at the 2012 annual meeting, said additional regulation on dairy producers would add to the cost of milk. He suggested that the price of milk is kept artificially low by not including the full impact of dairy production on the environment. If farmers were more tightly regulated, the price of milk would rise. In the dairy industry, the price farmers receive for their milk is set by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and is based on cheese prices. It is not at all tied to farmers’ actual cost of production.

Cushing’s comments on Friday, however, indicated a willingness to place water quality above the profits of ever-larger dairy operations that no longer resemble the family farms of the past.