Vermont’s state auditor says a taxpayer-funded program to reduce phosphorus pollution from farms needs better monitoring and data collection to show what measures are most effective.
Auditor Doug Hoffer said this is the first time his office has conducted an audit of programs run by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. His staff looked closely at grants awarded under the agency’s “best management practices” program, which since 1996 has spent $22 million to help farms reduce phosphorus pollution.
Hoffer said it’s not possible to tell right now what specific improvements, such as keeping livestock out of streams or diverting water from barnyards, work best.
“If you have 10 options, don’t you want to put most of the money in the two or three that are likely to give you the biggest bang?” he said.
There’s no doubt best management practices have reduced phosphorus pollution in the Lake Champlain, where the nutrient has fueled toxic algae blooms, Hoffer said.
But the audit found that the Agriculture Agency did not provide data to the Department of Environmental Conservation in the last two fiscal years on how much phosphorus was cut as a result.
“I think on some level, at 35,000 feet, there’s probably no doubt that most of the conversation practices they’re funding are appropriate and are achieving some portion of the goal, but they can’t document how much they’re getting rid of the phosphorus,” he said. “So if you can’t do that, you can’t answer a number of important questions: which of the many practices we are paying for are the most cost-effective?”
The grants are funded under the state’s capital bill, which is mostly used for investments in state buildings or projects. Hoffer said it’s unusual to use the capital bill to help private entities clean up pollution.
“The question to me is a policy issue: Should we be using taxpayer money for this,” he said. “But that’s up to the Legislature. We didn’t audit the policy per se.”
Laura Dipietro is head of water quality at the Agriculture Agency.
She said they’re working now on data collection and monitoring. But she points out that the best management practices the state helps pay for are well-established, proved techniques developed for the most part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“They can all be found through the USDA and they have an arm of the USDA, the Ag Research Service, that does the field testing and information and standard development so that these projects are understood to be effective,” she said.
“And the other thing is, these projects all have visual improvements. You can stand there and see any form of agriculture waste is captured and treated. The modeling is more challenging, but the visual says a ton,” she added.
State law also requires that in order to receive a grant, a farm has to be in “good standing” with the Agency of Agriculture, meaning it’s not in violation of pollution laws. But the audit found the agency does not have a procedure to document whether a farm is in good standing.
Dipietro said this is a recent requirement and the agency this month will change its process to include that review.