Towns, farms are full steam ahead on water quality
VERMONT — While politicians and federal agencies jockey to pay for the $2.3 billion clean up of Lake Champlain and improvement of Vermont’s waters, state and local agencies tasked with making it all happen are moving full speed ahead.
Agriculture officials have written and begun to implement rules for curbing the amount of animal waste and other phosphorous from getting into the lake. Towns are surveying work they need to do to stop runoff from roads and beginning projects. Municipalities are trying to get their arms around how to reduce the amount of sewage that escapes into rivers.
It is all to meet the mandates of the 2015 Vermont Clean Water Act, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s demand that Vermont improve not just the beauty of the lake but the quality of its water for drinking, recreation and economic development.
“Right now everything is moving forward,” said Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, which has a stake in proper land use and management. “There have not been any federal policy implications to date. And the (Gov. Phil) Scott administration is moving forward with implementing the Clean Water Act.”
Not just moving ahead, but moving ahead faster.
“Scott’s a builder. His business was contracting. He wants to see things get done,” Lougee said. “I think they’re working hard to put funding where they can implement projects the quickest. I think that’s why they’re focusing on roads first. They want to show progress.”
Part of the acceleration has to do with the natural timeline that unfolds when legislation is enacted, he explained. First you pass a law, then you pass the regulations to implement the law, then you do some public outreach to engage key players, then you create effective pipelines for money and projects. And these process have all been unfolding since the Clean Water Act was signed into law in June 2015.
But the acceleration also reflects policy choices. Both the Vermont Department of Transportation (VTrans) and the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) have rolled out new grant programs that are oriented toward improving water quality and have reallocated funds within some of their existing grant programs, Lougee said.
Moreover, the administration has chosen to prioritize roads as a way to get moving on lake cleanup.
“Under the Scott administration, VTrans and ANR have been working together to really try and frontload the work that they’re doing on roads so that they can start the process and show some progress on water cleanup,” Lougee said.
Road improvement, along with stormwater and wastewater management, are the three key areas where the Clean Water Act requires towns to meet higher standards. While stormwater and wastewater requirements vary with the size of the town and other factors, all towns must now get a new kind of permit called a Municipal Roads General Permit. The permit requires that new roads meet (still evolving) MRGP standards and that existing roads be brought up to snuff.
To get the permit, towns must draw up a list of what needs to be fixed to improve water quality, prioritize that inventory, schedule projects and get to work. Roughly speaking, towns have until 2020 to complete their inventories and 20 years TO complete projects.
This work is well under way in Addison County.
Of our 22 towns, all but Hancock and Granville are in the Lake Champlain watershed. West of the Green Mountains, 19 towns — all but Addison — are lined up to carry out 38 water quality-related road-improvement projects in the coming year. These projects include inventorying roads, upgrading and/or replacing culverts, lining ditches with stone, creating grass-lined ditches, and stabilizing slopes and stream banks. Other water quality road work includes grading roads to promote better draining and prevent erosion.
Total costs for all 38 water quality-related road projects is estimated at $627,621 for fiscal year 2018. Close to 73 percent of project funds will be provided by state agencies; the rest must come from the towns. Seventeen of the county’s 38 projects are funded through the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC); 21 projects are funded through VTrans.
In addition, Vergennes recently got a $50,000 DEC grant for stormwater planning. It allows Vergennes to begin a project that ultimately will stop the mixing of rainwater and sewage that has resulted in sewage spills into Otter Creek, Lougee explained. But the town will need additional money to complete that project.
“You can’t just go from idea to building,” Lougee said. “They know they have a sewer/stormwater problem. But first they’ve got to define the problem. Then they’ve got to engineer the solution to the problem. Then they’ve got to build that.”
Elsewhere across Vermont, towns have lined up water quality-related road, wastewater and stormwater projects similar to those slated for Addison County.
All told the DEC has allocated about $12.6 million to fund municipal water quality-related projects between now and June 30, 2018, and VTrans has allocated $11.1 million. While this funding also goes to water quality-related projects along other Vermont waterways, Lake Champlain remains the top priority.
Altogether, total funds available to the state’s municipalities for water quality related-projects is roughly $23.7 million.
The state makes water quality funds available to towns through a variety of programs.
VTrans administers three programs: Better Roads, Municipal Highway and Stormwater Mitigation, and Transportation Alternatives. DEC (part of the ANR) administers four: the Municipal Roads Grants-in-Aid pilot, Ecosystem Restoration Grants, Multi-Sector Clean Water Block Grants, and the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund.
ANR Secretary Julie Moore noted that the Revolving Loan Fund is only budgeted for $6 million in fiscal year 2018, but the fund actually has $87 million in it because of an “accumulated balance from several years of not expending the full amount that we receive” and as the result of recent lump sum loan repayments, such as one just received from Burlington.
Nevertheless, the Revolving Loan Fund requires that the state match some federal dollars, so Vermont won’t be able to touch some of that $87 million without spending state money.
For agriculture, two of the most important components of Lake Champlain cleanup are technical and financial assistance. Farmers need access to expert know-how to learn new farming practices that will help keep phosphorus out of the lake. And they need access to money to help implement these practices and upgrade infrastructure. Farming accounts for about 40 percent of all phosphorus runoff in the Lake Champlain basin, and the new regulations all farmers must live by are extensive.
Technical assistance includes information on such practices as using more cover crops, planting corn with no tilling, injecting manure into the ground instead of spreading it on top of fields, creating a nutrient management plan, using buffer zones next to ditches and waterways.
Infrastructure might be a new or improved manure pit or improvements to the barnyard area.
A host of state and federal entities work together to provide farmers with technical assistance: the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets; the UVM Extension offices; the regional conservation districts, and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Money for water quality-related farm practices or infrastructure upgrades comes through the Agency of Agriculture and through the NRCS.
Understanding these interlocking partnerships is key to understanding how Lake Champlain cleanup could be affected by policy changes under the Trump administration.
In general, the ag view on lake cleanup looks similar to that for municipalities. From the state and local point of view, programs are in place, work is well under way, and both farmers and key state players are engaged in addressing farm infrastructure and farm practices to help clean up the lake. Indeed, agriculture is perhaps the sector of the Vermont economy that is farthest along, that has taken the most steps and embraced the most changes to support water quality.
Clouds, however, could be looming if important federal programs suffer Trump-proposed cuts.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts underscored the state’s support for cleaning up Lake Champlain.
“The Scott administration has a strong commitment to water quality signified by the investment of $5.2 million over the next two years just in agriculture,” he said. “The farm community also has a strong commitment to working with the agency on the new regulations. We spend a tremendous amount of time working with them, getting them technical assistance, working on compliance, making sure that there are avenues and revenue streams of funding to help with projects.”
Tebbetts praised farmers for making a serious effort.
SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE Anson Tebbetts praised farmers for their work to update their practices so less phosphorus gets into Vermont streams and lakes. He hasn’t seen a change in lake cleanup funding, but is monitoring that.
Photo credit/UVM Extension
“They are really stepping up and trying to work hard to do what they need to do to make a living, but also to make sure that they are doing their best for the environment, too,” he said. “Because in the end a better environment is better for them as well. And they know that.”
From his office in Middlebury, local UVM Extension office head Jeff Carter is sanguine about farmers’ buy-in to the program and about funding being available to support them.
“Yes, the funding is there. Yes, it’s going to continue to be there,” Carter said. “The funding for my group, for Extension, to help work with farmers, yes the money’s there. The state’s committed to it. And we’re feeling that we’re increasing the amount of work we can do with farmers, which goes against what you’d think if you watch the national news.”
Carter said he anticipates very little change — at least for the time being. In fact, in some ways the Extension’s funding picture looks better than ever.
“At a local farm level here in Addison County our funding does not seem to be immediately affected,” he said. “Down the road it might be, but we are getting more grants to look at water quality than ever before.”
Looking “down the road,” Tebbetts, too, largely concurred.
“Currently we’ve not seen any difference. We’re status quo,” he said. “But I think the big concern is what is the actual (federal) budget going to look like when the (Trump) administration has its stamp on it. So that’s where the big concern is.
“What we are watching closely and we need to keep our eye on is what happens in October when they develop the new budget. There’s a number of things in the President’s new budget that would impact what we’re doing here on the ground for the environment.”
Federal money is likely to have very little effect on the Agency of Agriculture’s own programs. All are state funded. And unlike the DEC with its 100 employees funded by the feds, the Agency of Agriculture has just three such staff positions. Two are funded by the EPA and one by the USDA. Ditto for UVM Extension. Carter explained that over half of Extension’s funding is from grants, the next largest chunk is from the state of Vermont, and the smallest is from the feds. So he believes those programs and dollars are insulated from changes at the national level.
Where the proverbial cow manure is likeliest to reach the barn fan is with the technical assistance and funding provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. NRCS is by far the state’s largest provider of funds and of technical assistance. It has 64 employees in Vermont (though that figure also includes summer interns, explained Vermont NRCS head and State Conservationist Vicky Drew). NRCS has regional offices at 10 locations around the state, including Middlebury. Six work in the Middlebury office, providing expertise in things like soil conservation, project engineering, cartography and conservation planning. Other offices include wildlife biologists, archeologists and storm water specialists.
“Our role is to bring technical and financial resources to help farmers address their natural resource concerns,” Drew said.
Of Vermont NRCS’s $25 million fiscal year 2017 budget, about $7.6 goes for staff/technical assistance, $13.5 million for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program and $3.9 million for other financial assistance to farmers.
All experts interviewed for this article agreed that the NRCS EQIP program is the single most important source of water quality improvement funding for the state’s farmers.
EQIP has more money, and it gives the largest grants. Agency of Agriculture funding tops out at $75,000 per farm; NRCS tops out at $450,000. And while EQIP funds can go to farm practices and infrastructure besides water quality, Vermont’s EQIP money is focused on water quality.
“Because of the feedback we’ve received from our partners (such as Agency of Agriculture and UVM Extension), we have prioritized roughly 75 percent of that $13.5 million toward water quality practices,” Drew said.
Much of this money goes to solving problems in Lake Champlain.
“Farmers in the Connecticut River Valley constantly say ‘All the work’s in Lake Champlain. When are you going to fund work here in the Connecticut River Valley?’ It’s a balancing act of making sure that we focus on the most urgent and compelling issues in Vermont without leaving other critical resource concerns behind,” Drew said.
The USDA’s budget proposal for the coming year proposes additional funding for EQIP.
In addition to EQIP, the Natural Resources Conservation Service also provides money to purchase easements for farmland conservation and to take farmland along sensitive waterways out of agricultural production. Drew said that NRCS had purchased several conservation easements to restore sensitive areas along the main waterway through Addison and Rutland counties.
“We have a number of easements along the Otter Creek, quite an extensive array of contiguous projects all along the river there that have taken what we call sensitive agricultural land that might have been a challenge for the farmer to work out of production,” she said.
“When we restore wetlands, we increase capacity for the watershed to store and hold back that water and let that sediment drop out and let the ecosystem assimilate the nutrients before they get into the lake.”
The farming community is concerned about NRCS because the USDA (of which the NRCS is a part) came in for big cuts in President Trump’s proposed budget, first released in March. The Trump budget proposes 21 percent cuts to the USDA, the third largest after proposed cuts to the EPA and the State Department. And like the NRCS, many of the USDA programs Trump proposed to slash or eliminate serve rural communities.
When the White House ended the hiring freeze President Trump had implemented on his third day in office, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue extended the freeze for most of the USDA, including the NRCS.
Drew said that since January seven positions have become vacant in Vermont. While she can make entry level hires, the freeze restrains her from hiring senior personnel. Right now two of the NRCS’s most important positions remain unfilled: the state conservation engineer and the state resource conservationist.
Nonetheless, Drew remains optimistic. She’s been at the NRCS for 34 years and has served under six Presidents (four Republican and two Democrats). Every administration wants to make its mark, she said. Moreover, the NRCS’s dual focus on agriculture and conservation has historically given it wide support from both parties.
“I remain optimistic that we will continue to provide great service to the agricultural and forest landowner community in Vermont. No matter what the circumstances are, we’re going to do the best that we can with what we’re given,” Drew said.
“We do that every year and whenever there’s a change in administration. This is not the first time we’ve seen changes as the result of a change in administration … It happens every single time.”
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