Feds promise $16 million in grants for lake

MONTPELIER — The federal government on Wednesday announced $16 million in funds to help Vermont and New York clean up their greatest shared resource — Lake Champlain.
The initiative, titled the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, will be administered by the federal government over the next five years to fund conservation efforts aimed at eliminating agricultural runoff into watersheds that feed into the lake, which is among the nation’s largest bodies of fresh water.
The programs that spell out exactly how the funds will be spent have not been worked up, but officials say Addison County farmers will be among the prime targets for the money.
The funds are part of $370 million announced by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for 115 projects across every state and Puerto Rico, aimed at improving the country’s water quality, supporting wildlife habitats and cleaning up the environment. Private companies and organizations kicked in another $400 million.
The head of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, Jason Weller, joined Gov. Peter Shumlin in Montpelier on Jan. 14 to make the announcement.
“These partnerships give communities more ownership in efforts to conserve their local natural resources,” Weller said in a statement. “They also encourage private sector investment so we can have an impact that’s well beyond what the federal government could accomplish on its own.”
The Shumlin administration will use the funds to accomplish its goals to clean up the Lake Champlain watershed and prevent future pollution, a topic that the governor made a priority of his Jan. 8 inaugural address. In that speech, he proposed raising fees on fertilizer (a major source of the pollutant phosphorous) and denying tax benefits through the Current Use program to polluters.
The $16 million in federal funds comes on the heels of a $45 million commitment made by the USDA this past August to clean up Lake Champlain. Vilsack personally visited Vermont to announce the funds, which committed as much money for the next five years of cleanup as the entire previous decade.
Shumlin framed cleanup of Lake Champlain as not just an environmental issue, but an economic one.
“Clearing up Lake Champlain is imperative,” the governor said in a statement. “It drives hundreds of millions in economic activity every year and it is a big reason why people put down roots in Vermont. Protection of our lake is critical to protecting our economy.”
Vermont’s congressional delegation praised the new funds.
“The grant is a big win for Lake Champlain and a huge vote of confidence in Vermont’s plan to improve the lake’s water quality,” said Rep. Peter Welch. “The funds from this national competitive grant will immediately be put to work implementing Vermont’s conservation efforts and help ensure a safe and healthy lake for this and future generations.”
Welch also spoke of the urgent need to address phosphorous pollution in Lake Champlain, which produces toxic algae blooms that can cause fish die-offs, make humans sick and kill small mammals. Algae blooms struck the water off the coast of Addison and Ferrisburgh in 2012, and more recently plagued the Missisquoi Bay in Franklin County this past summer.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a chief architect of the 2014 Farm Bill (and many previous versions of the mammoth legislation), said he was eager to see the funds put to use in the Champlain Valley.
“We made this a Farm Bill priority as a way to sharpen our focus and proactively address the factors that we already know are affecting the lake’s water quality,” Leahy said in a statement. “I am proud that USDA financial assistance for conservation work by our farmers will be stronger under this five-year Farm Bill than at any time in history, and I congratulate the state of Vermont for putting together such a strong project.”
Vicki Drew, a state conservationist with the NRCS office in Vermont, said her staff will spend the next several weeks figuring out the best way to administer the program. Farmers will then be able to apply for funding, which will be distributed on a rolling basis over the next five years.
Drew said the NRCS, based on the state’s recommendation, will prioritize funding in three watershed areas: the St. Albans and Missisquoi bays in Franklin County, and southern Lake Champlain, defined as points south of the Crown Point Bridge in Addison.
The feds also identified areas with farmland close to water, prone to flooding and heavy soil. Anyone who has ever trudged through an Addison County farm field knows that is the case for much of the land in the region.
“A lot of Addison County fits that bill,” Drew said. “There’s clay soil, ditches and water everywhere.”
Drew said that because Addison County is home to many of the state’s 900 dairies, farmers stand a good chance of being awarded federal funding for conservation efforts.
“I do think Addison County farmers will fare well, especially in the southern part of the watershed,” Drew said.
In particular, Drew said the grants will target small farms, defined by the state as operations with less than 200 milking cows. Though they do not account for the majority of products produced, there are more than three times the number of small farms than large or medium operations.
State Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross told the Independent last week that using this new federal money to reach out to small farms is incredibly important, since state agencies have not had the resources to do so adequately.
Small farms, unlike medium or large farms, do not need permits to operate from the state. They are still bound to adhere a sort of farmers’ code of conduct, called the Accepted Agricultural Practices, and Drew said NRCS efforts will focus on educating farmers about them.
“We plan to target small farms, primarily, that haven’t already been targeted by some other process,” Drew said. “The primary focus of (the money) is outreach and education.”
Administering the program will also require the coordination of many players: the federal government, state agencies in New York and Vermont, and private conservation organizations on both sides of Lake Champlain. Because Vermont has committed $20 million in matching funds to the NRCS program, Drew said it will represent an unprecedented amount of cooperation between the state and federal agencies.
“That’s what’s very different from what we’ve done in the past, and this brings all partners to the table strategically to align with our work,” she said. “That will be integrated across the partnership.”

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