Top stories of 2015: #4 — $78 million and new farming rules aim to clean up Lake Champlain

Toxic swirls of blue green algae closing beaches along Lake Champlain are now a recurring summer event. Although such events continue to be concentrated most heavily in Missisquoi Bay and St. Albans Bay, such popular Addison County spots as Kingsland Bay and Button Bay continue to see troubling levels of blue green algae in the hottest months intermittently.
Efforts to clean up Lake Champlain got a huge boost in 2015 thanks to new state regulations and new limits for phosphorus pollution set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. While the EPA’s new total maximum daily load (TMDL) limits affect all sectors of the Vermont economy and ask for different choices from individual citizens up through town governments, new regulations for a cleaner lake will have an impact on small farms in particular.
The Vermont Clean Water Act, known as Act 64, became law in June. Gov. Shumlin called it “the most comprehensive legislation to address the problem of polluted storm water runoff into Vermont’s lakes and waterways in the history of the state.” The law affects not only Lake Champlain, but rivers, creeks, streams, inland lakes and other waterways throughout the state.
The law includes measures to reduce phosphorus pollution from roads, farms, developed areas, forestry and wastewater treatment plants. It adds a total of 20 new positions at the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and in the Department of Environmental Conservation and creates a dedicated Clean Water Fund, expected to raise $5.3 million in fiscal year 2016 alone. The new law brings tens of millions of additional federal and state funds to bear on the state’s water quality crisis.
Overall, state and federal governments have allocated $78 million over the next five years for Lake Champlain clean up.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., secured $45 million in funding for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Vermont over the next five years. Those funds will be used to implement projects aimed at reducing phosphorous from farmlands, such as cover cropping and excluding livestock from waterways. The USDA has also allocated $16 million to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program in Vermont, with the funds focused on Lake Champlain. The state’s implementation plan says the money will be used, in part, for high priority practices in Missisquoi and St. Albans bays, and the South Lake.
A TMDL report analyzed the sources of phosphorus pollution from major watersheds along the lake and set different phosphorus pollution reduction targets for each. In the Otter Creek watershed, for example, the EPA found that 50 percent of phosphorus runoff came from farming (48 percent from croplands and pasturelands, 2 percent from barnyard areas), 17 percent from streambank erosion, 17 percent from forestlands, 14 percent from developed lands (runoff from paved roads and back roads, parking lots, athletic fields, etc.), and 2 percent from wastewater treatment facilities.
For the area of Lake Champlain that drains the Otter Creek watershed, the EPA set reduction targets based both on levels of pollution from different sources and on a sort of “doability”/“bang-for-the-buck” analysis. In its August 2015 report, the EPA asked for a 47 percent reduction in erosion from pasturelands and croplands, an 80 percent reduction from barnyard areas, a 40 percent reduction in streambank erosion, a 5 percent reduction from forested areas, a 22 percent reduction in phosphorus runoff from developed land, and no reduction in phosphorus runoff from wastewater treatment plants.
As required by Act 64, the Agency of Agriculture in October released a draft of its new Required Agricultural Practices, called RAPs, for all farms to clean up Lake Champlain. Ag Secretary Chuck Ross and his staff came to Middlebury as part of a series of hearings on the draft RAPs. The hearing in Middlebury was one of the most heavily attended in the state, with more than 100 farmers and interested stakeholders in the audience.
For owners and operators of what’s defined as large and medium-sized farms, the RAPs are largely business as usual, with a few significant changes. For owners of small farms, however, the new RAPs require them to meet a far more stringent set of farm management practices overall.

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