ADDISON COUNTY — Warm weather earlier this month sparked blue-green algae blooms in Lake Champlain’s waters, prompting the Vermont Department of Health to caution boaters, swimmers, pet-owners and other residents to avoid contact with the contaminated water.
The water may not be clear, but this much is: Pollution in the form of phosphorus entering the lake poses a serious threat to Lake Champlain’s waters.
But seven years after the state’s “Clean and Clear” action plan for cleaning the lake debuted, the amount of phosphorus entering the lake is only slightly smaller — to the tune of 1 to 3 percent — than it was in 2003.
Clean and Clear last winter reported that, after already investing more than $80 million in lake clean-up programs since 2003, it may take between $500 and $800 over the next 15 years to restore water quality.
Meanwhile, Julie Moore, director of the Clean and Clear program, said Vermont is in some ways wading into uncharted water when it comes to lake clean-up. She said her staff certainly keeps an eye on lake and river clean-up efforts around the country, particularly on the Chesapeake Bay, but that turning around water quality in such a large body of water is a huge undertaking.
It’s made all the more daunting by the fact that 97 percent of the phosphorus entering Lake Champlain comes from non-point sources rather than identifiable culprits like wastewater treatment plants or factories.
“Unlike point source pollution, non-point source requires behavioral change (from everybody),” Moore said. “Regulation is only part of the solution. If people don’t buy into what it is they’re doing, why it is they’re doing it, and what they have to change … we’re going to have a never-ending cycle of failed regulation.”
Meanwhile, some water-watchers are pushing for a culture shift — particularly in the field of agriculture, which accounts for half of the phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain.
“People are stuck in the mindset that the only way to protect and preserve our agricultural heritage in Vermont is to prop up mega-dairies that are pursuing an economic model that’s not working for the farm economy,” said Anthony Iarrapino, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. “I think Vermont is right to recognize agriculture as a centerpiece of our economy, of the aesthetic of the state, which has both economical and quality of life impacts. But I think what has gone wrong is that people have developed this sense of Vermont agriculture as one thing, and that’s large dairies that produce fluid milk for the fluid market. It ignores a richer heritage of agricultural diversity.”
Politicians who aren’t willing to enforce clean waters laws, he said, give Vermont agriculture too little credit for its ability to adopt more environmentally sensitive business models.
The biggest problem, Iarrapino went on, is that too many people are invested in the status quo of big dairies. State money is pumped into subsidizing building projects on dairy farms to staunch water pollution, and he thinks not enough energy is being put into imagining creative solutions.
“(Farms have) changed as the business of dairy has changed, but they’re not willing to change back or they’re not willing to change to something different or new,” he said. “We don’t think the solution is closing down the farms. We think the solution is reclaiming that dynamic adaptability that was once a hallmark of Vermont agriculture.”
CLF has floated a couple of ideas for making changes, including better training for state employees tasked with investigating water quality concerns on Vermont farms. Meanwhile, former organic dairy farmer James Maroney has been making the push for more Vermont dairies to go organic for a long time. He thinks a Vermont organic dairy co-op could export milk to high-paying markets in the Northeast, bringing in better prices while cutting back on the cultivation of crops like corn and the heavy use of fertilizer.
On at least one organic dairy farm — Mike Eastman’s spread in Addison — the tenets of that kind of farming are already in place. Eastman is soft-spoken and mild mannered, but he feels strongly about his farming decisions.
He made the choice when he began farming to keep his cows on a grass-only diet, which means grazing during the summer months and hay during the winter. He thinks the diet is what’s best for the cows, but it has the added benefit of being good for the land, too. Erosion and runoff is cut back because there’s permanent growth on the land instead of tilled-up soil ready for planting. The grass stubble that remains after haying, for instance, is effective at holding manure in place when Eastman spreads his composted manure in the fall.
“A lot of it is because farmers have the perception that you need corn in order for cows to give a lot of milk,” Eastman said. “They have this perception that cows are not going to perform well without corn. … As farmers have expanded, and taken on more debt, they need to milk more and more cows. So they grow more and more corn to feed them.”
Eastman is glad he’s not caught in that cycle.
“I guess I’ve always felt since I started farming that I wanted to have a grass-based, grazing type of farming. I felt it was best for the cows, best for the environment, and best for my profitability. In all areas it really excels,” he said.
As for other farmers?
“I think they’re honestly trying to do the best they can, but on the other hand I think the key is to move everyone back toward a grass-based type of agriculture,” he said. “As long as you’re growing a lot of corn, it’s nearly impossible to keep soil out of the lake.”
THE BIG PICTURE
But Eastman, like many farmers, said that agriculture alone shouldn’t be made the scapegoat in the debate about phosphorus in Lake Champlain.
Developed land (residential and commercial) accounts for half of the non-point sources contributing nutrient to the watershed.
“I think we need to look at the whole picture and make sure that development is getting its fair share of scrutiny,” Eastman said.
On that, at least, everyone seems to agree.
The Clean and Clear program is offering money to municipalities to incorporate clean water plans in storm water system upgrades or other construction projects, and Clean and Clear director Julie Moore said the financial incentive helps motivate towns to get involved.
The program is also taking pride in small steps forward. A ban on dishwasher detergents containing phosphorus went into effect on July 1, and Moore said the ban will keep two to three metric tons of phosphorus out of the lake each year.
Lake Champlain can reasonably accommodate 427 metric tons of the nutrient annually, but right now anywhere from 600 to 1,200 metric tons reaches the lake each year.
How do Vermont farmers, residents and developers shift habits to reduce 50 percent or more of the current phosphorus nutrients that currently seep into the lake and our rivers? The answer, most agree, lies in adopting a few significant changes — like farming practices and the run-off from larger metropolitan centers like Burlington — to dozens of more minor changes, such as banning phosphorus in dishwasher soap and then remaining vigilant in our efforts to curb pollution into Vermont’s lakes and streams 365-days a year.
Moore said the conversation about lake clean-up efforts can’t be a once-a-year occurrence, when warm weather sparks the growth of toxic algae blooms on the water.
“There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on right now as the algae take off,” Moore said. “The flip side to that is what’s really needed is year-round, long-term support for efforts to reduce phosphorus pollution.”