U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stood at the edge of Lake Champlain Thursday and promised help for its troubled waters.
"This is the sixth-largest fresh water body in the country, and there’s no question that it needs help,” Vilsack said.
That help - $45 million of it - is coming from the USDA over the next five years. That’s the same amount USDA dedicated to Lake Champlain over the previous 10 years, to be given out in half the time.
The money will subsidize pollution reduction measures farmers can take to keep phosphorus from flowing into the lake at harmful levels.
At higher-than-normal concentrations, phosphorus causes blue-green algae blooms that are toxic to humans and have killed pets in the lake in the past.
The money comes as the state is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a lake cleanup plan, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load plan, or TMDL.
The new TMDL is in development as the result of a lawsuit filed by the Conservation Law Foundation alleging that state regulators weren’t doing enough to enforce the Clean Water Act in Vermont. CLF won the suit, and now the state must have a new, more stringent, cleanup plan.
But CLF director Chris Kilian and other environmentalists say the state isn’t doing enough to control the leading cause of phosphorus pollution in the lake: Farmland.
According to EPA statistics, farmland contributes just over 35 percent of the state’s phosphorus output into Lake Champlain.
Currently, the “best management practices” farms can use to reduce their pollution into the lake are optional – farmers can implement them if they want to, and the new USDA money will help bolster the incentives available to those that do.
But farmers that don’t create buffer zones between crop fields and streams, cover crop unused fields or keep livestock out of waterways aren’t subject to punishment by the state. All of those control measures are optional.
“I mean in this day and age, when we know so much about how important our water is, it’s ludicrous, it’s to the point of being ludicrous,” said Pat Caverzasi, a St. Albans Bay homeowner who said this year is the first time a blue-green algae bloom has made the water in front of her house the color of pea soup.
“I don’t know if there are laws, or maybe laws being written, but there’s got to be punch to those laws,” she said. “It can’t be ‘Oh, if you’d like to.’”
But Vilsack disagrees. At the announcement of the $45 million funding package, he said voluntary measures are working.
“You know, we’ve found at USDA that voluntary conservation is particularly effective with agricultural interests,” he said. “We’ve seen an enormous increase in activity in conservation in the last four or five years because we’ve taken this voluntary approach, providing incentives.”
But the state’s commissioner of environmental conservation, David Mears, doesn’t think voluntary efforts are always enough.
In written comments regarding a petition from CLF to force high-polluting farms to implement “best management practices,” Mears told Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross such requirements are necessary.
Mears said his department “agrees with CLF that to achieve these [state water quality] goals the state will need to require targeted best management practices (BMPs) within Missisquoi Bay,” to reduce pollution from especially high-polluting properties.
Ross hasn’t yet weighed in on the CLF petition, so for now, farm pollution control remains voluntary.