Lake clean-up deal targets farms; Agency to expand ag rules, practices
CHAMPLAIN VALLEY — A landmark agreement between Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross and the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) puts Addison County farmers on alert that all Vermont farms within the entire Lake Champlain watershed must get on board with the new, more stringent requirements to reduce phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain — not just those within the most heavily polluted Missisquoi basin.
“What it means for Addison County farmers is that you better wake up and pay attention because this is not their problem, it’s our problem,” said Jeff Carter, an agronomy specialist with the University of Vermont Extension in Middlebury.
“For Addison County we’ve been kind of going along for quite a number of years thinking that ‘Oh, it’s the large farms and medium farms that have to pay attention to this but I don’t have to because it’s way up in Missisquoi and St. Albans Bay,’ but the reality is that in the next year or two we’re going to feel the pinch down here.”
As a result, farms large and small in Addison County will see on-site inspections and will have to begin following industry standard best practices for manure handling to prevent further pollution of Lake Champlain.
Last November, Ross rejected the CLF’s petition for more rigorous requirements for farming practices in the Missisquoi watershed, where farms drain into the most heavily polluted part of Lake Champlain, arguing that CLF’s petition was out of sync with ongoing state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) processes to address Lake Champlain pollution. CLF then sued the Agency of Agriculture in Vermont’s Environmental Court.
On Sept. 4, Ross announced he had reversed his November 2014 decision in the light of Act 64 (the Vermont clean water legislation passed last spring) and the EPA’s announcement in August of new phosphorus TMDL (total maximum daily load) limits for the lake, along with the state’s revised plan to meet those limits.
In return, CLF has agreed to put the brakes on its Environmental Court suit.
Although CLF’s original petition concerns farming practices in the Missisquoi watershed, the new agreement also extends to farms in the St. Albans, Otter Creek and South Lake watersheds.
Most of Addison County is within the Otter Creek watershed. Areas of Addison County in the South Lake watershed include farms in the southwestern part of the county that drain into Hospital Creek, Whitney Creek, Braisted Brook and East Creek or that drain directly into Lake Champlain.
According to the Revised Secretary’s Decision and a companion legal document — which lay out Ross’s new plan to address the state’s and CLF’s mutual concerns over ag-related pollution in Lake Champlain — the Agency of Agriculture will now require best management practices, or BMPs, on farms deemed critical sources of phosphorous that make their way in to Lake Champlain. However, no BMPs will be required until after the state has made an on-farm assessment and the farmer is given time to draft a plan to implement the BMPs.
The state and CLF are now proposing a settlement under which every farm in the effected area will be visited and assessed to determine if additional practices are needed to protect and improve water quality.
Under Act 64, called the Vermont Clean Water Act, the Agency of Agriculture was given the authority to require best management practices on any farm in an impaired watershed.
Increased farm inspections, new required agricultural practices (which will raise the minimum farms are required to do to protect water quality) and requiring best management practices where necessary are all part of the state’s plan to reduce phosphorous loads in Lake Champlain to the EPA limits.
The agreement with CLF lays out how the farm inspection program and implementation of BMPs will work in impaired watersheds throughout the state.
Under the agreement, the state has one year to educate farmers about the new required agricultural practices and about the inspection program, while also beginning to make inspections.
When an inspector determines BMPs are required, the farmer will be given no more than six months to craft a plan showing which BMPs they will implement where, including, if required, a plan to pay for the improvements.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) currently has $45 million to spend on agricultural practices in Vermont over a five-year period. NRCS has already announced that the most impaired segments of Lake Champlain — Missisquoi and St. Albans bays and the South Lake — are a priority.
All this action around lake cleanup comes as the federal EPA prepares to give final approval to new pollution limits next month.
In addition, the state is making available funds to support agricultural practices as part of the Vermont Clean Water Act. The secretary of agriculture will maintain a prioritized list of projects applying for state funds based not on the order in which applications were received but their impact on water quality, the proposed BMPs, cost and need.
The BMPs must be implemented as soon as reasonably feasible, and within one year of the plan’s submission. However, the timetable can extend up to 10 years, and the secretary may extend it another five years.
If a farm fails to submit a plan, then Agency of Agriculture will determine which BMPs are needed and use its authority to require their implementation.
Finally, if the secretary of agriculture determines inadequate financial resources are available for the needed BMPs, the secretary will inform CLF, the Legislature and the governor.
ADDISON COUNTY COALITION
Within Addison County, efforts to support farming practices that will help build farms and clean up Lake Champlain are led by a coalition among the UVM Extension’s Crops, Soil and Pasture team in Middlebury, the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition and the state and local offices of the NRCS. The extension office and NRCS will be stepping up their outreach and education efforts and continue to assist in connecting individual farmers to the technical know-how and financial resources needed to curb phosphorus runoff.
Farms in southwestern Addison County will also benefit from funding NRCS has earmarked for its four designated 2016 high-priority areas, which includes the McKenzie Brook watershed stretching from Addison through Bridport and Shoreham into Orwell. The NRCS plans to allocate $1 million–$1.5 million (out of the $45 million allocated overall) for farms on the Vermont side of the McKenzie Brook watershed, which includes farms draining into Hospital Creek and Whitney Creek (both in Addison) and other farms west of the Otter Creek basin.
The NRCS money will also target farms in the Pike River and Rock River watersheds within the larger Missisquoi basin and St. Albans Bay watershed.
On Friday, Oct. 9, Ross will host a public hearing in St. Albans from 1 to 3 p.m. at the American Legion at 100 Parah Drive, to take testimony on the proposed settlement. The Agency of Agriculture will also accept written comments up through 4:30 p.m. Oct. 20.
All farmers and all affected citizens are urged to attend this meeting or to submit comments.
After the hearing, Ross will issue a revised final ruling, and if CLF concurs, the two sides will ask a judge to approve the settlement.
UVM Extension’s Carter said it has long been expected that small farms would do their part to clean up the lake, now that will be better codified.
“Here in Addison County, we have a robust team that works with farmers on field practices like cover crops and no till. The farmers are helping us figure out what to do, and we’re helping them figure it out and this agreement is just forcing it to happen faster.”
To learn more about the upcoming hearing and to access the Revised Secretary’s Decision and other important documents, visit the Vermont Agency of Agriculture website at http://agriculture.vermont.gov/node/1108.
Farmers wanting to learn more about curbing phosphorus runoff can contact the UVM Extension at 388-4969, the local NRCS office at 388-6748, or the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition at [email protected]
Editor’s note: Michelle Monroe is a St. Alban’s Messenger staff reporter and Gaen Murphree is an Addison Independent staff reporter.