ST. ALBANS — Testimony was heard here Thursday on a proposed settlement between the Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets (AAFM) and the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) over best-management practices on farms in the Missisquoi Bay watershed.
Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross was in St. Albans to take part but much of discussion focused on broader concerns rather than the specific proposal.
Under the proposed settlement, AAFM staff would visit every farm in the basin and require the implementation of best management practices such as cover crops, grassed waterways and vegetated buffer strips on fields vulnerable to erosion and stormwater runoff.
Other practices the state could require include livestock exclusion, conservation tillage, the permanent conversion of tilled cropland to hay or pasture.
Last year, CLF filed a petition asking the Ross to require those practices on all fields found to be critical source areas of pollution in a 2011 study of the watershed funded the Lake Champlain Basin Program. Ross rejected the petition on the grounds that the law stated best management practices could be required only if the funding was available to support them.
CLF appealed his decision to the Vermont Environmental Court. The proposed settlement would end that suit.
The requirements of the settlement – best management practices where the state deems them necessary — are the same as those in the Vermont Clean Water Act and the state’s plan to meet pollution limits for Lake Champlain, known as the TMDL (total maximum daily load).
Missisquoi Bay is the most heavily impaired segment of the lake. EPA scientists say that ending toxic blue-green algae blooms will require a reduction of 64.3 percent in the amount of phosphorous entering the bay. Reduction targets have been set for each source of phosphorous entering the Missisquoi watershed.
- wastewater treatment – 51.9 percent
- forest – 60 percent
- streambank erosion – 65.3 percent
- agricultural nonpoint sources – 82.8 percent
At the conclusion of the hearing, Ross spoke about the work being done to address pollution from wastewater treatment facilities, roads and development. “The effort … is aimed at the wide variety of contributors,” he said.
In Missisquoi Bay, even foresters are being asked to make changes. Forests are generally a boon for water quality, but in Missisquoi Bay any erosion from any land use is being targeted, no matter how small.
“There’s a lot that can be done, and we’re not going to get it done if we don’t work together,” said Ross.
Under the proposed settlement, AARM will engage in a year of education and outreach to farms in the Missisquoi basin. Annually for three years, AAFM will notify farmers of the need for an assessment of runoff and erosion on the farm and a possible plan to address it.
Within six years, the state must assess all farms that ship milk and within 10 years all livestock farms within the basin.
If the state believes best management practices are needed, the farmer will have up to six months to provide the agency with a plan to address erosion or runoff. Up to a year is offered to begin plan implementation and up to 10 years to complete it, with the possibility of a five-year extension.
Since Ross rejected the petition in the fall of 2014, more finances have become available to AAFM and farmers, including $45 million for the Natural Resources Conservation Service over five years for pollution-reduction practices on farms.
The Vermont Clean Water Act changed the funding of best management practices. Previously the practices could only be required if funding was available. It now says that AAFM must inform farmers of possible funding sources when requiring practices on farms.
Bakersfield farmers and agricultural consultant Paul Stanley noted the similarity between the proposed settlement and what farmers are being required to do under Act 64 and the TMD.
“A lot of what the CLF is asking for is what we’re going to have to deal with from the EPA and the state of Vermont,” he said, adding that the timeline in the proposed settlement is the same as that in Act 64.
Pointing to the conditions of the bay and its tributaries, Stanley said, “We all have to work to improve this situation. It’s a generational thing and we need to get this taken care of an move forward.”
Highgate and Sheldon farmer Bill Rowell suggested that farmers are hesitant to speak out because whenever they do they end up with “a black eye.”
“The lake situation is not entirely the farmer’s responsibility,” he said, citing lake-wide statistics indicating agriculture is responsible for 40 percent of the phosphorous in the lake. Agriculture is the leading source of phosphorous in Missisquoi Bay.
“I think some other people should come to the table and take responsibility,” said Rowell, adding that farmers have shown an “unprecedented willingness” to address problems.
Organic dairy farmer Earl Fournier, of Swanton, said farmers are doing their share to clean up the lake, but the emphasis has been on large farms. Small farms and hobby farms also should be looked at, he said.
Fournier said other sources of pollution need to be addressed. “Eliminating our 40 percent is not going to solve the problem,” he added.
He also said the practices being implemented need to make a difference.
His comments were echoed by fellow Swanton farmer Dick Longway, who asked, “Is there any guarantee that in 10 years, (we’ll be told) ‘it wasn’t this, it was that’?
Longway recently visited a Canadian lake he reported had blue-green algae blooms even though there was little development and no agriculture in the watershed. The state should be looking at what is happening in other lakes outside the state for information on what’s causing blooms, he said.
Several non-farmers expressed support for the farm community, such as Scott Richardson, of North Hero, who said, “The farmers are not the problem. They’re part of the problem.”
Richardson also mentioned the Missisquoi Bay causeway and combined sewer overflows from municipalities. The combined sewer overflows are also being included in the state’s efforts to reduce phosphorous from sewage as part of the TMDL.
Rita and Gerard Sparachino of Highgate Springs brought photos of the water around their home. Gerard quoted the TMDL, stating, “Overall, the largest source of phosphorous in Missisquoi Bay is the agricultural sector.”
While the majority of those testifying spoke about water quality and agriculture more generally, some speakers did focus in on the topic of the hearing—the proposed settlement.
Mike Winslow, a scientist with the Lake Champlain Committee, said that in his 14 years with LCC he’s learned that most cleanup programs over-promise and under-deliver.
“This is the most exciting plan I’ve seen put forth,” he said of the proposed settlement. “It indemnifies the farmers but still sets clear goals.”
He asked that the proposal be extended to St. Albans Bay, Otter Creek, and the South Lake.
The Friends of Northern Lake Champlain opposed the CLF petition a year ago out of concerns it would halt progress being made in the agricultural community, explained president Kent Henderson. While expressing concern about the economic straits many dairy farmers are in as a result of dropping milk prices, Henderson said, “We’re ready to support the secretary’s decision to reverse (his previous decision).
James Ehlers, of Lake Champlain International, said, “We unequivocally support this settlement.” Ehlers said he would like to see the same approach adopted throughout the Lake Champlain basin.
To the farmers, he said the LCI would be “working tirelessly and endlessly to bring other sectors into compliance as well.”
Barry Kade, of Montgomery, touched on how dairy farming has changed over the past several decades. “What we see today is large, consolidated farms that just have too many cows for the land,” he said.
“There needs to be a diversification of agriculture,” he added, saying the rest of the environment should not be sacrificed for dairying.
Retired organic farmer James Maroney, of Leicester, suggested little progress would be made as long as farmers are following conventional dairy practices. “The state must put water quality above any and all economic concerns,” he said.
Jacob Bourdeau spoke about the changes farmers have already made in their practices and the investments made to end winter spreading.
Harold Howrigan, Jr., said the St. Albans Co-operative and Creamery has formed a new company, “Nutrient,” to begin looking at other ways to use nutrients other than spreading manure.
A couple of speakers said a negotiated settlement would be preferable to a court ruling.
Ross will take written testimony on the proposed settlement until Nov. 23. He said he would probably not issue a decision until December.