Farmland runoff raises questions
ST. ALBANS — Despite two years of conversation, when it comes to agriculture and water quality, progress on the ground remains hard to see. That is especially true on the Hathaway Point where more than 50 acres of farmland drain into St. Albans Bay.
Recent changes to a ditch originally dug by retired farmer Frank Montagne have exacerbated the problem of runoff carrying sediment into the bay, which is 115 feet from the southern edge of the cornfields, according to nearby residents.
Runoff from the fields has long been a concern for local residents. “We see a plume of sediment rich runoff going out into the bay,” said St. Albans Area Watershed Association president Steve Cushing.
The plumes of dark water often remain for a day or two, according to Hathaway Point resident Steve Langevin.
When the ditch was excavated in early June, the amount of exposed surface increased substantially. In one section near Langevin’s property, the old ditch is still visible. It is narrower, shallower and contains vegetation.
Alongside the excavated ditch is bare land intended to be a 50-foot grass buffer between the corn and the ditch.
Jill and Steve Langevin’s property has been flooded twice since the excavation, along with that of their neighbor John Chicoine.
Langevin attended the signing of the Vermont Water Quality Act, H. 35, at the St. Albans Bay Park about 10 days after the excavation. “I was so excited,” he said. “I thought now they’re going to do something.”
While Langevin and his neighbors are frustrated by agricultural sediment being washed into the bay, the owners of the farm land, Dave and Cathy Montagne, wonder whether farming will be possible anywhere near the bay as the state attempts to meet federal requirements to clean up Lake Champlain.
To meet water quality standards being set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), phosphorous from agricultural land in the St. Albans basin will have to be reduced by 36 percent, or 6.6 metric tons per year.
Water from the fields brings sediment containing phosphorous into the bay and
right now, cornfields account for 51 percent it, according to the EPA.
The phosphorous encourages blooms of blue-green algae and the growth of weeds. The weeds can be deeply unpleasant especially when they decay, but are not toxic. The algae is known to cause gastro-intestinal illness in humans, can be fatal to animals, and researchers are exploring a possible connection between blue-green algae and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The Montagnes have left farming but their land on Hathaway Point Road has been leased to Dylan Nelson, part of the Nelson farming family from the Northeast Kingdom.
“The Nelsons are doing a great job,” said Cathy Montagne. “They’re doing all they can.”
Dave’s father, Frank, installed the ditch to stop water flowing off of the farmland onto the camp properties along the roadway, said Dave Montagne.
The high point of the area at 2,305 feet is in the fields, which are located about a quarter-mile east of the boat launch on Hathaway Point Road. The fields stretch to Lapan Bay on the north side of the peninsula.
At some point, a ditch and culvert were installed between homes owned by the Langevins and Chicoine. The Langevins’ ditch connects to the ditch along the cornfields, and runs south between the two houses. Water traveling along the ditch passes through a culvert, daylights briefly, and then goes under Hathaway Point Road and into the bay.
Chicoine said the ditch and culvert have been there the entire 32 years he’s lived in his home.
“I’m sure it was originally done to drain surface water from the property,” Jill Langevin said, adding she doubted it was intended to drain “acres and acres.”
But when the ditch alongside the cornfields was cleaned out and deepened that’s what happened.
Since the ditch was dredged, the Langevin and Chicoine properties have been flooded twice, on June 14 and June 21. Water entered the Langevins’ sunroom and a shed, and a crawl space under the Chicoine home.
“The water was just all over everywhere,” said Langevin. There have been heavy rainfalls in the past, but aside from 2011, no serious flooding, he reported.
The same cannot be true of Pat Caversazi’s property, which has had drainage problems for years. The Caversazis live two houses to the east of the Langevins and their neighbors to the east are part-time residents uninterested in installing drainage.
According to Caversazi, she and her husband have been told their property is an inappropriate place to install drainage.
Last year, herbicides from the cornfields washed into the ditch, killing vegetation in the ditches along the cornfields and between the Langevin and Chicoine property, right up to Hathaway Point Road, said Langevin.
The herbicides also killed lawn at Pat Caversazi’s home.
The Agency of Agriculture investigated, and Caversazi has a report from the agency confirming that two herbicides commonly used on cornfields were found on her lawn.
According to Laura DiPeitro, of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, the herbicides were applied following the directions from the manufacturer. As long as the directions were followed, no violation of the law occurred, even if herbicides entered the lake.
“There was herbicide in the lawn and we’ve got solutions in place to hopefully not have that happen again,” said DiPietro.
Those solutions included a 50-foot buffer between the corn and the ditch and the dredging of the ditch.
Montagne said the Nelsons had been told they could not apply herbicides to the cornfield until the ditch had been cleaned.
“There was a ditch,” said DiPietro. “There is a volume of water. They cleaned it out and now there are consequences we’re dealing with.”
Asked why the consequences weren’t foreseen – more water moving more rapidly in a deeper ditch that no longer had vegetation – DiPietro replied that the volumes of rain received in June couldn’t have been predicted and that the rain interfered with measures to address the situation.
Caversazi is happy not to have flooding or herbicide issues on her lawn, but feels responsible for what has happened to her neighbors.
She also was critical of the way the ditch was dredged, which involved taking down numerous trees and caused damage to trees on her property, whose roots were exposed during the dredging.
“He has killed every single tree that could have helped to filter and reduce erosion,” said Caversazi. “How do you make it right when you’ve killed all the trees?”
Asked about the tree removal, DiPietro said the excavator needed access to the ditch to clean it out. As for the damage to the trees, that’s beyond the purview of her agency.
Caversazi has long agitated for a solution to runoff from the cornfields, saying she was concerned not only about her property but the lake. “To have the problem still going into the lake is no solution,” she said. “The lake is the most important thing in all of this.”
“We’re moving as fast as we can,” said DiPietro. “The soils are saturated.”
The agency is examining the hydrology of the area to find a solution, she said.
The entire situation highlights the ways in which farms are treated differently from other businesses. For example, developers disturbing vulnerable soils are required to show the state how they will prevent soils from leaving the property during construction in order to secure needed permits. Yet no precautions were required here to prevent exposed, disturbed soils from being carried 115 feet into the lake.
Why a solution for managing the water – such as check dams or a catch basin — wasn’t identified before the ditch was dug is unclear at this point.
What is clear is that farmers at St. Albans Bay, their neighbors, and regulators will be having many more discussions about farm practices and how to reduce runoff from fields.
Water and corn
Any business other than agriculture putting pollutants directly into Lake Champlain would be required to have a pollution discharge permit under the federal Clean Water Act. But the Clean Water Act specifically exempts agricultural stormwater from requiring such a permit, labeling it a non-point source.
But the state does have its own regulatory options. Under H. 35, the state will be tightening what are now called the accepted agricultural practices and renaming them the required agricultural practices.
The Agency of Agriculture also will have the authority to require farmers to go beyond that and adopt best management practices when needed to prevent or reduce sediment runoff. Such practices may be required here, according to DiPietro.
With the right practices, corn can be grown without negatively impacting water quality, according to Vermont Environmental Commissioner David Mears.
At the same time, the state is putting in place regulations he hopes will “cause farmers to think about the consequences of growing corn when it’s not a good place to grow corn.”
Mears said one of the roles for the state and other groups that work with farmers will be helping them look at alternative farming models, such as raising cows entirely on hay.
Montagne indicated he is willing to consider alternatives to corn on those fields, but is reluctant to see them developed, believing houses and roads would not be better for the lake than farmland.
Hay is a possibility, since alfalfa has always done well there, according to Montagne.
“When it’s hay, it’s fine,” said Chicoine.