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Community leaders discuss water quality

ADDISON — There’s too much phosphorus in Lake Champlain, and it’s past time to do something about it.

That was the message at a June 16 meeting at D.A.R. State Park in Addison that drew a group of about 100 farmers, small-business owners and concerned citizens to listen to a panel of environmental lawyers, state officials and legislators discuss the state of water quality in the Lake Champlain Basin in an event organized by the Addison County Democratic Party.

The panel included Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury; Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison County; Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC); and David Mears, executive director of Audubon Vermont.

Other Democratic lawmakers in attendance as guests were Addison County Sen. Ruth Hardy, Vergennes Reps. Diane Lanpher and Matt Birong, and Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas of Bradford.

The theme of the event: educate and engage.

The stated objective of the meeting and action it recommended was “to enact targeted legislation and regulation, to equip state and local officials with the resources they need to address the challenges within their purview, and to enforce the legislation and regulations that are already on the books,” wrote Skip Masback, co-chair of the Champlain Basin Water Quality Task Force of the Addison County and Panton Town Democratic committees.

Once a pristine body of water enjoyed for its swimming, recreational activities and drinking water, Lake Champlain has seen excessive growth of algae as a result of too much phosphorus, according to Groveman and Mears. That pollution has at times resulted in lake water becoming toxic to pets and people, as well as turning it green.

All of the panelists stated that this accretion of phosphorus in the water is largely the result of stormwater runoff from farms whose soil can contain harmful chemicals, including phosphorus. Also problematic, they said, is rainwater runoff from dirt roads that do not always direct water away from river corridors that feed larger bodies of water.

Furthermore, they added, Lake Champlain is especially susceptible to runoff because the total surface area of the lake’s basin is about 18 times the size of the lake itself. To put that into perspective, the basin of Lake Michigan is only twice the size of the lake’s surface area.

Although there have been localized efforts to clean the lake and come up with sustainable solutions for purification, the panelists said the biggest issue remains regulation of farming practices. Despite the ratification of Act 64 in 2016, also known as the Vermont Clean Water Act, which required massive changes in agricultural and road maintenance practices, they said that law has not been adequately enforced.

Amy Sheldon, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, announced a bill in the works that centers around building a regenerative economy that both supports farmers and requires them to engage in healthier agricultural practices.

“Delusion will not be the solution to our pollution,” said Sheldon.

While the entire panel agreed as to the problems and solutions of the pollution issue, they did not dismiss the problems facing farmers in Vermont. Sustainable solutions to the problem demand major changes to farmers’ use of land, including to the types of fertilizers and pesticides used, as well as to infrastructure to ensure chemicals from the soil do not leak into river corridors.

The solutions do not come cheap, they said, especially for farmers who already struggle to survive financially. Mears acknowledged many simply do not have the time or resources to focus on environmental concerns.

“To ask farmers who are already navigating through a global set of challenges with our food system to, at the same time, transform the way that they farm is a lot to ask,” said Mears. “The farms have not met the challenge, nor have we as a state given them the tools to meet the challenge.”

This point was not lost on the panel, but they nevertheless said collaboration among farmers, state and local governments, and perhaps even the federal government could result in benefits for all parties. The most important of which, at least to those in attendance, was the cleanliness of Lake Champlain and all Vermont bodies of water.

Such a collaboration is necessary to ensure farmers can adjust their practices without making their margins even smaller, according to Sheldon, who simplified the benefits of such a collaboration.

“If we get out of the way, Mother Nature will heal,” she said.

A video of the meeting will be posted and disseminated in hopes of further educating and engaging citizens throughout Vermont. Masback stressed the importance of getting farmers, state representatives, citizens and students committed to improving water quality in Lake Champlain and beyond.

Masback hopes the urgency of the situation will motivate further community engagement throughout the county and the state, fearing that anything less will not be enough.

“The concept of ‘All-In’ is that we have no chance of solving this without everyone’s engagement,” he said. “It can’t be an anti-farming movement or an anti-city movement.”

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