Herons on Missisquoi Bay, 8-16-2016

A pair of great blue herons arrive at the mouth of the Missisquoi River in Highgate.

ST. ALBANS – An international review of nutrient loading within the Missisquoi Bay watershed is recommending, among other things, the creation of an international task force and incentives to transition farmers away from corn and soy.

The review, an international report filed by the International Joint Commission (IJC) on the Missisquoi Bay’s watershed, is currently the subject of review, with a public comment period open until Dec. 14.

The IJC is an international organization charged by a bilateral treaty with managing disputes over U.S. and Canadian boundary waters.

The report in question is a long-term review of phosphorus and nutrient pollution within the Missisquoi Basin, an international watershed spanning almost 1,200 square miles between Vermont and Quebec.

Within the report, the IJC outlines a set of six primary recommendations for improving water quality within the international Missisquoi Bay, considered by the Lake Champlain total maximum daily load (TMDL) agreement to be one of the most impaired watersheds within the Lake Champlain Basin.

Many of those recommendations offered by the report, from fertilizer management to transitioning away from corn or soy, were tailored to agriculture, cited by the TMDL as the largest contributor of phosphorus within the watershed.

Phosphorus is a vital nutrient for plant growth often found in manure and fertilizer.

When abundances of phosphorus are washed into waterways, however, they can fuel potentially toxic blooms of cyanobacteria or “blue-green algae.”

Within the Missisquoi Basin, where, according to the report, shallow water levels and limited connections to the rest of Lake Champlain have made water quality work a challenge, algal blooms have quality of life impacts as well as environmental impacts.

Several communities in both Quebec and Vermont tap the bay for drinking water, and the affects of algal blooms have led to boil notices in at least one Quebec community that heavily relies on the bay as a water source.

While, as the report notes, “per unit of area, developed land contributes an equivalent phosphorus load to agricultural land,” much of the land within the watershed remains agricultural or forested.

Still, Eric Howe, the program director of the Lake Champlain Basin Program (LCBP), described a seventh recommendation suggested for the program’s final draft tailored to the limited amount of urban development within the watershed.

“We’re proposing a seventh recommendation that does look at developed areas in more detail,” Howe said during a hearing on the IJC’s report in St. Albans last week. “This is something that’s definitely worth consideration.”

Recommendations currently within the report call on the governments of both Vermont and Quebec to organize a permanent task force charged with standardizing reporting on clean water projects within the watershed and advising on projects on both sides of the border.

The proposed task force would echo a previous agreement between Vermont and Quebec, wherein both governments agreed to phosphorus targets they ultimately failed to meet when the agreement expired in 2016.

While both Vermont and Quebec both fell short of the agreement’s targeted phosphorus concentration, the IJC’s report recommends that “principles outlined within that MOU should continue to guide the parties.”

Program Director at the Lake Champlain Basin Program Eric Howe, 11-21-2019

The Lake Champlain Basin Program’s program manager Eric Howe presents an international report on phosphorus in the Missisquoi Bay.

The report argues, meanwhile, that a transition away from corn and soy would allow for a reduction of crops that, due to growing schedules and spacing between crop rows, presented a greater risk for nutrient runoff from farm fields.

Instead, the report recommends incentivizing farmers to transition to cereal grains, which, according to data cited within the report, presented less of a risk of phosphorus runoff into the watershed.

Those incentives, according to the report, could come in the form of either developing a market for those crops or tapping into grant programs to help fund a farmer’s transition away from those crops.

It was one of the recommendations that saw pushback during the IJC’s hearing in St. Albans, where longtime Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC) chair Kent Henderson challenged the report’s used of data predating the wider adoption of more environmentally conscious agricultural practices within the watershed.

“I think that really needs to be dissected,” Henderson said. “If you look at farmers working in their fields now as opposed to 2011, you’re going to see a lot more no-till going on, you’re going to see cover crops being used... There’s a lot of change in agriculture.”

The report recommends Quebec and Vermont establish “a phosphorus balance analysis” within the watershed, tracking how much phosphorus is brought into the watershed and how much is later cycled out through food production.

Also recommended were incentives and programs to reduce the overall amount of phosphorus applied to farms, either through management plans or a crop insurance protecting farmers when limiting fertilizers affects farmers’ crop yields.

“We do not want to recommend an action that will perhaps act to the detriment of any individuals or companies,” Howe said. “We understand that agriculture is important to the region.”

The report also recommended support for projects to protect healthier waterways within the basin that, according to the report, could “reduce erosive impacts of severe storm events and capture sediment, nutrients and other pollutants before they are delivered to Missisquoi Bay.”

A final recommendation asked officials to increase cooperation between organizations on both sides of the border.

It was something officials from both Vermont and Quebec noted was lacking in recent memory after they were questioned by a member of the audience on cooperation between farmers.

“I haven’t seen any recently,” Pierre Leduc, the president of Quebec’s Organisme de bassin versant de la baie Missisquoi, said.

Many of the recommendations were already in place to some extent, audience members noted during the St. Albans hearing, with nutrient management planning and required agricultural practices already mandating phosphorus controls on Vermont farms.

Friends of Northern Lake Champlain Chair Kent Henderson, 11-21-2019

Longtime chair of the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain Kent Henderson comments on a report on nutrient runoff in the Missisquoi Basin during a public hearing on the report.

The IJC’s report also warns of a likely impact climate change would bring to the watershed, stating that the increased storm activity expected to follow in a warming climate would lead to more high flow events in the watershed.

The report partially attributes rising levels of phosphorus within the watershed to the changing climate, with storms and more intense snow melts bringing higher flows that officials from both sides of the border confirmed occurred in their respective segments of the watershed.

“While the recommendations presented... address water quality specifically, an overriding recommendation is that the Governments of Canada and the United States, as well as those of Quebec and Vermont, implement meaningful controls on carbon emissions,” the report reads.

But while reports on the Missisquoi Basin continued to show phosphorus levels in the watershed increasing, the Dept. of Environmental Conservation’s Neil Kamman noted that, without the work already underway, things could look worse.

“One of the things I would like to argue is we are seeing a slower increase than we would have had we not been putting management practices on the ground,” Kamman said.

Recommended for you