Feds promise $45 million for Lake Champlain
BURLINGTON — With the stunning vista of Lake Champlain at his back, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last Thursday that the federal government will spend up to $45 million to protect the lake and its watershed.
“There’s no question (the lake) needs help,” Vilsack said. “There’s no question that over a period of decades, not just agriculture but landscape and sewage treatments and so forth have impacted and affected the health of this great lake, and we have got to do a better job … investing in this extraordinary piece of Mother Nature.”
The secretary, accompanied by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Peter Welch and Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, made the announcement at a press conference Thursday morning at the ECHO Center in Burlington.
Vilsack said Lake Champlain was a valuable asset to Vermont, and that a national shift toward conservation will benefit the nation’s sixth-largest lake.
“What I think is most important that’s taking place in conservation is the fact that we’re beginning to understand that we’ll all benefit from healthier lakes and healthier rivers, whether we live in Iowa or Oregon or Vermont,” Vilsack said. “This is a new day for conservation.”
In particular, Lake Champlain has fallen victim to toxic blue-green algae blooms. These blooms, caused by phosphorous pollution, can cause fish die-offs, make humans sick and kill pets. State officials have estimated that has much as half of phosphorous pollution comes from agricultural runoff.
Vilsack said Americans need to double down on conservation efforts, and said he is directing the USDA to more aggressively combat pollution of Lake Champlain.
“We need to speed the process up,” Vilsack said. “I’ve seen pictures today, I’ve seen actual water samples today, that strongly suggest the need for us to accelerate our work.”
Vilsack added that the USDA has spent $46 million on Lake Champlain in the past 10 years, and will spend $45 million in the next half decade.
“We’re going to spend as much money in the next five years as we did in the last 10 years and we’re going to make sure we partner with people who care deeply about this lake,” Vilsack said.
Welch said the help of the USDA is integral to protecting Lake Champlain.
“In order to make this lake as clean as every one of us wants it to be, we have to have the partnership from USDA,” Welch said.
Ross said he and other department heads, along with Gov. Peter Shumlin, have worked toward conserving the state’s lakes and rivers since 2010.
“We knew this was a significant problem, and that we needed to marshal additional resources,” Ross said.
Ross, who like Vilsack is a native Iowan, said local, state and federal officials must coordinate their efforts to significantly cut down on pollution in state waterways.
“We are not going to solve this problem unless we all work together,” Ross said. “We have stopped the finger pointing and started to have the conversations, some of them very tough, about how we’re going to address this issue of phosphorous overloads in Lake Champlain.”
Ross praised the state’s work to create a new Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for phosphorous. The Environmental Protection Agency this spring required the state to submit a new plan, after phosphorous levels in the lake exceeded EPA standards by one third.
Ross is also mulling a petition from the Conservation Law Foundation that would implement new best management practices for farmers in Franklin County, where algae growth has proved problematic in the shallow Missisquoi Bay.
Vilsack said the USDA next month would make available another $1 million for farmers to implement cover crops. Cover crops, which are often grasses, are planted in the fall after the summer harvest. Their root structures prevent soils from washing away into waterways, and also rejuvenate the soil with needed nutrients.
“One of the strategies for improving this water is making sure we reduce soil erosion, and one of the most effective ways to do that is expanded cover crop activity,” Vilsack said.
Funding for this initiative comes from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the USDA.
Vilsack said the USDA would also provide funding for vegetative buffers, no till farming and other conservation practices, and continue to support its 16 field staff working in the state to provide technical assistance to farmers.
Vilsack has served as Secretary of Agriculture since 2009. Before that, he was the governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007.
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