After Feedback From Small Farms, State Delays New Water Quality Standards

Mar 28, 2016

Farmers are cheering plans to delay the adoption of new water quality standards on Vermont agriculture operations. Critics, however, say the decision to postpone will only exacerbate the pollution issues that have led to toxic algae blooms in Lake Champlain and other water bodies. 

The new rules are part of a water-quality bill that lawmakers passed in 2015. And they’re supposed to reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing off of farms and into lakes and rivers.

But farmers say they haven’t had enough time to vet the complex regulatory proposals. They recently asked the Agency of Agriculture to delay adoption of what are known as Required Agricultural Practices.

“A lot of issues have been raised that have yet to be resolved, so there’s more work to be done before the formal rule is ready to go out for primetime,” says Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, which represents small farmers. 

The agency apparently agrees with Stander. Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross penned a letter to legislative officials seeking their approval to push back the formal adoption of new rules, from July 1 to September 15.

In his letter, Ross cites the massive feedback from the farming community in the drafting of proposed rules. And he says giving the state more time to accommodate some of that input won’t significantly set back the state’s pursuit of the new water-quality goals.

"There's more work to be done before the formal rule is ready to go out for primetime." - Andrea Stander, Rural Vermont

James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, has been a vocal critic of the state’s efforts to curtail the flow of phosphorus and other pollutants into the state’s waters. Ehlers says he'd feel differently if he thought the delay would result in more effective rules.

“But right now the Agency of Agriculture’s reputation is not one of being proactive, and quite frankly this is terribly, terribly disappointing,” Ehlers says.

Ehlers says the clock is ticking if Vermont wants to avoid irreversible ecological harm to its public waters.

“The economic argument that one industry ... should get a free pass while other people’s personal financial situations are being destroyed, their businesses are being compromised and public health is being threatened, I don’t think there’s room for any delay,” Ehlers says.

"The economic argument that one industry ... should get a free pass while other people's personal financial situations are being destroyed ... I don't think there's room for any delay." - James Ehlers, Lake Champlain International

Rebekah Weber, the Lake Champlain Lakekeeper at the Conservation Law Foundation, says CLF also is disappointed by the delay. Weber says the organization will use the extended timeline to push for more stringent Required Agricultural Practices.

“The RAP’s list of authorized activities in buffer zones, for example, including grazing, fertilizer application and harvesting, we feel that that completely warps the definition and purpose of a buffer,” Weber says.

Weber says the proposed RAPs would also allow for continued application of manure to farm fields, even if soil tests show the ground is already saturated with nutrients.

“If you have 20 parts per million, which demonstrates the soils are basically saturated with phosphorus, you shouldn’t be applying any more manure, period,” Weber says.

Jane Clifford, executive director of the Green Mountain Dairy Farmers Cooperative Federation, says the department deserves credit for taking farmer feedback so seriously. Clifford, a dairy farmer herself, says the issues are important enough to take the time to get them right.

"I don't believe there is another agency or department that has taken the amount of time and energy that the Agency of Agriculture has taken to go through this process." - Jane Clifford, Green Mountain Dairy Farmers Cooperative Federation

“I don’t believe, and this is my perspective, I don’t believe there is another agency or department that has taken the amount of time and energy that the Agency of Agriculture has taken to go through this process,” Clifford says. 

Stander says the economic viability of some small farms hangs in the balance, and that the latest iteration of the RAP proposals, such as ones dealing with manure-application restrictions and nutrient-management planning, could be harmful.

Some small farms, for instance, could be required to comply with something known as a NRCS 590-level nutrient-management plan.

“And that is a very complex and expensive process to go through,” Stander says. “In many cases that level of nutrient management planning would not be necessary or even effective on their farms.”

"I'm trying not to use cliches, but slippery slope: Once you start extending deadlines, you just keep doing it." - Rep. David Deen, House Committee on Fish Wildlife and Water Resources chairman

Westminster Rep. David Deen, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Fish Wildlife and Water Resources, says he’s inclined to give the agency more time to formalize the new rules. And he says he doesn’t think meeting the original July 1 deadline would have much impact on practices during the 2016 farming seasons anyway. 

But he says he thinks the state should get only this one delay.

“I’m trying not to use clichés, but slippery slope: Once you start extending deadlines, you just keep doing it,” Deen says.

Lawmakers will consider the request for the extension this week.