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Opinion: State has poor track record on water pollution issues

Gov. Shumlin’s efforts to reduce agricultural pollution into Vermont waterways deserve support. The present system of agricultural regulation imposes limited restrictions on manure runoff that, even when implemented, are ineffective in preventing pollution. And, the rules are not strictly enforced. Those are the conclusions I reached in spring of 2011 when trying to stop pollution of the lower Middlebury River.
On opening day of trout season I watched a huge spreader spraying thousands of gallons of liquid manure on the field just west of Route 7 bordering the river. The field had been flooded three times in the previous year. Sand and gravel were carried into the field, and soil and manure into the stream. When the river flooded two days later, I began a string of phone calls, meetings, and emails that eventually included the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, the Otter Creek Conservation District, the New Haven River Anglers’ Association, the Addison County River Watch, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the USDA, the National Forest Service, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, and Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross.
I found out that there is 20 years’ worth of water quality data from the river, collected by the Addison County River Watch. For all that time, the Vermont standard for E. coli has been exceeded in 95 percent of observations. The Vermont standard for E. coli is 77 organisms per 100 milliliters, and observations exceeding 2,400 are not uncommon in the lower river. The Middlebury River Water Quality Report from 2009 classifies the river as “impaired as a result of high E. coli counts from agricultural runoff.”
I ran into a web of bureaucracy that made simple correction of the problem impossible. The Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) handles point-source water pollution complaints, but non-point-source pollution comes under the jurisdiction of the Agency of Agriculture. Within Agriculture, different agencies handle different size farms — in Addison County, small farms are overseen by the Otter Creek Conservation District, while medium-size farms come under the state Division of Agricultural Resources and Environmental Stewardship.
My complaint, I learned, had to do with a medium-size farm, so I ended up with the Agency of Agriculture. There I learned that even though the manure obviously came from the nozzle of the manure tank, it could not be called “a point-source complaint,” which would have transferred enforcement to the Agency of Natural Resources. That meant enforcement was limited to a question of whether the farmer was following Accepted Agricultural Practices, or not.
Laura DiPietro of Ag Resources and Stewardship explained that AAP for this farmer meant he/she had to maintain a 25-foot buffer between the field and top-of-bank of the stream. AAP also states that the manure had to be plowed under within 2 days, or the field had to be seeded to a cover crop. She promised an investigation.
I went back to the field and walked the perimeter looking at the setback distances between the field and stream. In one place in particular there was less than 25 feet between the field and riverbank. Since the river had flooded two days after the manure was applied, cover crops never had a chance.
Five weeks after filing my complaint Laura reported to me that no violations had occurred and the farmer was operating within his management plan.
Finally, I met with Chuck Ross. He was candid and cordial and sympathetic but appeared to have his hands tied. He said that corn was a valuable crop and farmers would be very reluctant to give it up. He said that the natural biome of the Middlebury River valley was river-bottom forest, and when farms operated there, water pollution was a likely result.
Based on my experience, the Agency of Agriculture showed little interest in looking at the causes of water pollution objectively. I met a wall of denial — denial that manure got into waterways, denial that E. coli found in waterways could have come from manure, denial that anything could or needed to change. Today, four years after my complaint, the same field is being treated the same way and the river is still flooding it.
I strongly agree with Gov. Shumlin that something needs to be done, and we can’t rely on the same strategies used in the past, particularly AAPs, to find a solution.
Steve Reynolds
Cornwall

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