From Manure To Education, Talking Lake Cleanup With Two Policy Leaders

Jan 28, 2015

The deteriorating water quality in Lake Champlain has been a topic of ecological concern, litigation and spending in the last two decades. Much of the problem comes from phosphorous washing into the lake from its massive watershed and setting off blooms of toxic, filthy blue-green algae.

Phosphorous gets into the lake a number of ways: wastewater treatment plants, stormwater runoff from paved surfaces, streams and farms. In his inaugural address, Gov. Shumlin proposed roughly $20 million in state and federal funds to provide farmers with incentives to develop better manure practices and reduce significant runoff from local roads.

Chuck Ross, secretary of Vermont's Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, and David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, are two of the state’s policy leaders connected to this issue. They sat down with Vermont Edition to talk about the lake, farm runoff, new policies and more.

On the phosphorous levels in Lake Champlain

David Mears says Vermont needs to reduce the amount of phosphorus, sediment and nutrients going into the lake by over 30 percent to achieve the standard level. “Within that overall goal of reduction, farm production is roughly 40 percent across the whole basin, and some parts of the basin it’s significantly more, like the northern or southern part,” Mears says.

He explains that the issue with phosphorus is it sinks into the sediment, remaining trapped for a long time. “It’s going to take a while for the phosphorous to work its way out of the system, particularly in some of the shallower bays like St. Alban’s Bay … When the sediments are churned up by wave action or wind, it can release the phosphorus into the water column,” says Mears.

"It's going to take a while for the phosphorous to work its way out of the system, particularly in some of the shallower bays like St. Alban's Bay ... When the sediments are churned up by wave action or wind, it can release the phosphorus into the water column." - David Mears, commissioner of environmental conversation

Why are farms contributing 40 percent to the problem?

Chuck Ross says that a lot of the contribution has to do with the high farm intensity in the watershed, particularly in the northwestern part of the state. He says that in the problem areas, such as Missisquoi and St. Alban’s Bay, the agriculture community contributes up to 60-70 percent of the problem. “It really has to do with the nature of the land use and on a per-farm basis. Each farm is different with different practices and impacts, so it would be unfair to generalize that every farm in one area is doing [one thing], because they are all different, they have different crops, different rotations and they have different ways to apply their manure,” Ross says.

On manure

Chuck Ross says that stream banks are a significant contributor of up to 20 percent or more of the phosphorous load in Lake Champlain.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Ross says that although manure spreading on farms is clearly a big contributor, there are other sources. “Stream banks are sometimes are located in farm fields, sometimes located elsewhere, but they too are a significant contributor [of] up to 20 percent or more of the phosphorous load. This is a hydrological issue that some farmers have to deal with because they own land along the rivers,” Mears says. He thinks that there needs to be a big push to help all landowners, farmer or not, to understand how their particular land use may be affecting the waters in the state and how to mitigate the impact.

On enforcement and education

Ross says that in the Department of Agriculture, they have recommended changes to the enforcement process to be more meaningful and not “ignored as the cost of doing business.” He believes most farmers in Vermont follow best practices and that “many farmers to work very hard, expending their own time, money and resources to do the right thing, and then we have a couple of bad actors make them look bad.”

He doesn’t think that enforcement is the answer to the phosphorous problem. “We’re not going to enforce our way to clean water. We’re going to get to clean water because we collaborate, partner and create a culture where we all feel responsible, where we all know what we need to do and we do it,” Ross says.

"We're not going to enforce our way to clean water. We're going to get to clean water because we collaborate, partner and create a culture where we all feel responsible, where we all know what we need to do and we do it." - Chuck Ross, secretary of agriculture

Ross says that when when he joined the Agency of Agriculture, he had a disturbing realization that many farmers aren’t familiar with the Accepted Agriculture Practices that have been in place in Vermont since 1995. “I emphasize education, because if the people who are engaged with the practices on the farm don’t actually know what they should be doing, or what’s required of them, it’s not a surprise that we have some issues out there,” Ross says. He explains that everyone does better when they are educated, encouraged and assisted to do the right thing. “That’s the culture we want to create,” Ross says.

Who should enforce the rules?

David Mears thinks that the Agency of Agriculture should be responsible for enforcing regulations because they have existing relationships with farmers and an education outreach program in place.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Some critics argue that the Department of Environmental Conservation, Mears's department, would do a better job of enforcing water pollution rules on farms than the Agency of Agriculture does. Mears explains that everyone in the government wants clean water, but that the accountability needs to lie where it is most effective. “Where are we going to get the most bang for our public tax dollar? The Agency of Agriculture have folks that are on the farms all the time, they have relationships with the farmers and have a whole set of education outreach that they do already … there can be more effective enforcement. It’s one of the tools we can do a better job with, and it’s a big part of our overall initiative,” says Mears. He says that he knows Vermonters across the state are frustrated with the problem. “Well-managed farms are one of our greatest clean water assets and frankly, that’s what we need to move towards,” Mears says. 

Should tax payers help pay for the cleanup?

Ross thinks that using tax money to help with the cleanup is going to speed up the process and that the cleanup needs to be done as quickly as possible. “It’s also important to recognize that when assistance is provided to farms, many farms do things on their own anyway at this time. Secondly, when they do implement changes, they are putting some of their own money and time on the table as well. So it’s not all just taxpayer funded,” Ross says.

Mears says that the new infusion of federal dollars from the USDA is a big help. “That particular grant is the perfect example of what we need to move to. It has a mix of funding from the state, from the federal government, from private folks and farmers. It’s a full-on team effort and there is a shared benefit to all of us from having our land in farms the state of Vermont,” he says.

On what Vermont farmers are currently doing right

"Frankly, any time a farmer is finding ways to make sure the rainfall and snow melt that falls on the landscape infiltrates into the ground slowly, and does not run off, they are doing a real benefit to us for clean water. A well-managed farm is one of our greatest assets." - David Mears

“Frankly, any time a farmer is finding ways to make sure the rainfall and snow melt that falls on the landscape infiltrates into the ground slowly, and does not run off, they are doing a real benefit to us for clean water. A well-managed farm is one of our greatest assets,” Mears says.

Are farmers really unaware of the current regulations?

Ross says that when he started at the Agency of Agriculture in 2011, there were four people to help issue permits and regulate the larger farms in Vermont, each responsible for about 60,000 acres of land. He says a big challenge with a smaller staff is not having the capacity to do education outreach, which results in a lot of smaller farms not understanding the regulations. “Vermonters are going to do the right thing. We just need to get out and educate … it’s our experience that there is not familiarity with the Accepted Agricultural Practices,” he says.

On having a tip line for people to report incidents

Chuck Ross says that although there is no formal tip line, the Agency of Agriculture urges people to call them. “We try to get out there within at least 24 hours. It’s frustrating when we get a report and we don’t catch the person in the act. But we urge people to call the agency and a lot of what we do is based upon complaints,” he says.

On turning the conversation into action

Ross says that they are in the process of presenting and discussing next steps with the Legislature. “Given the Legislature’s historic interest, I believe we’re going to be engaged in a very constructive and positive forward-moving conversation. It’s not a question of whether or not we’re going to do this, it’s a question of how we’re going to do this,” he says. Ross says that although the farming community might not be excited about some of their proposals, such as a fertilizer fee, they welcome ideas and suggestions throughout the process.

"I believe we're going to be engaged in a very constructive and positive forward-moving conversation. It's not a question of whether or not we're going to do this, it's a question of how we're going to do this." - Chuck Ross

Mears thinks the response from the Legislature has been positive. “Every one of the chairs of committees, across party lines, are coming to talk to [us] and saying, ‘How can we help?’ That’s a huge breakthrough … I think we have some tough choices in front of us, but I’m very optimistic that we’ll make it happen,” he says.

The EPA will rule on the state’s lake cleanup proposal in June, says Mears.