Vermont officials outlined the state’s new plan to address agricultural runoff in the Lake Champlain basin at a conference in St. Albans on Monday. New resources, deeper partnerships across state government, and new accountability tools (including enforcement and penalties by the attorney general’s office) have been established to improve water quality across Vermont. The state is under pressure from the US EPA to move aggressively ahead with cleaning up the lake. If not, the federal govenment could come in and act on its own and bill Vermont for cleanup costs.
Federal law requires Vermont to reduce phosphorus pollution by 36%. Manure runoff from farms is the largest source of phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain, with at least 40% of the phosphorus pollution coming from farms, according to Vermont’s Agriculture Secretary, Chuck Ross. Cyanobacteria feed on the phosphorus, creating toxic blue-green algae blooms.
Although pollution also flows from developed areas, roads, forests and waste water treatment plants, one of the most cost-effective solutions is to focus on farming operations. This is where Vermont officials say relatively small investments could generate big returns in curbing runoff.
“In the State of the State, the Governor emphasized the state-wide commitment we will all engage in to clean up Lake Champlain. As you know, we have a particular challenge in meeting that goal here in Franklin County. Today, we are here to tell you more about the Clean Water Initiative and the collaborative approach we will take to meet this commitment,” ~ David Mears, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation
Agency of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears, Agricultural Secretary Chuck Ross, and Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell outlined The Statewide Plan to Enhance Stewardship and Accountability. The plan detailed a 4-pronged approach to address agriculture-related water quality issues in Lake Champlain and the need to zero in on a relatively small number of sources of pollution flowing into rivers that feed into the lake.
Using new resources, the State’s partners, which include federal agencies and local water quality organizations, will work with farmers to provide technical assistance and implement agricultural stewardship practices proven to improve water quality. These practices will include: use of cover crops, buffers, contour tillage, no-till farming, livestock exclusion, barnyard repair, grass waterways and crop rotation.
Agriculture and environmental leaders say the state has worked hard to identify and secure these resources. The USDA has committed $45 million to base program funding, an additional $16.8 million for two Regional Conservation Partnership Program projects ($16 million in USDA funding to benefit Lake Champlain), and $3 million of Lake Champlain Basin Program funding. The Shumlin Administration has also proposed a Clean Water Fund to raise about $5 million to help levy additional resources and implement water quality improvements.
Agency of Agriculture and the Agency of Natural resources staff are being re-deployed to address the priority regions. Additional staff will also be hired.
These staffing changes will increase capacity for: outreach and education, technical assistance, additional inspections, investigations and data tracking.
State partners, Federal partners, NGOs, farmers, and business owners are collaborating in new ways to increase efficiency and improve results. Some of these include: educating farmers at the farmstead about conservation practices and programs, creating watershed specific plans that incorporate these partnerships for increased efficiency, meeting regularly with these groups at the local level to keep momentum, and coordinating the compliance, investigations and technical assistance to identify the issues and connect farmers with partners that can help plan solutions.
“We have honed our focus to enhance the statewide culture of stewardship and accountability. Stewardship means greater partnership across state government, more technical assistance and new, unprecedented resources for farmers to implement conservation practices. Accountability means we have more tools to bring those who fly in the face of the law into compliance… The majority of farmers are working hard to protect our natural resources. Now there are more resources available to assist them in their efforts.”” ~ Chuck Ross, Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture
The Agency of Agriculture, Agency of Natural Resources and the Attorney General have established enhanced, coordinated enforcement for agriculture water quality; the State is also proposing new ways to hold offenders accountable. For example: current use penalties, new enforcement authorities, emergency order authority, civil penalties and the authority to limit livestock.
Officials say legal enforcement of water quality rules on the state’s farmers is going to be one of the tools that will be used to help clean up Lake Champlain, and penalties could include civil fines, a loss of tax breaks for agricultural lands. Ross and Sorrell both say penalties would be used as a last resort on farms that refuse to comply with water quality efforts.
“My office is working closely with the Agency of Agriculture and the Agency of Natural Resources and is committed to bringing enforcement actions when necessary to address violations of Vermont’s agricultural water quality laws, and especially here in Franklin County. We understand that most Vermont farmers are trying to run sustainable farms that operate within the law and live up to the expectations of Vermonters, but when farms fail to do so, we are ready to step in.” ~ Vermont Attorney General, Bill Sorrell
State leaders urge farmers to contact the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s local office and discuss how they can become eligible for these new financial resources to implement conservation practices.
“This initiative leverages one of the state’s most vital resources — Vermont farmers who have demonstrated a commitment to stewarding the land to protect clean water. The initiative offers support for farmers to take actions that will conserve soil and protect water, and ensures that all farmers are held to the same standard,” said Mears.
Farmers are already required to follow accepted agricultural practices, or AAPs, which are designed to limit manure runoff. Now, Vermont is expanding these measures — and is under pressure from federal regulators and water quality advocates to enforce them.
“We’re serious. We mean it,” Ross said. “But we’re also serious that we mean we want to help people do the right thing because we know, it’s been shown many times, that most of the agriculture community is engaged, interested, (they) want to make a contribution, have made a contribution and will continue to make a contribution.”
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