ST. ALBANS — Farmers say they are willing to help clean up Lake Champlain, but many oppose statewide regulations forcing them to do so.
At a hearing in Franklin County, where some of the state’s largest dairy farms are located, farmers said the new rules are too uniform.
The Conservation Law Foundation in May petitioned the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets to enforce mandatory regulations to curb agricultural phosphorus runoff from farms in Missisquoi Bay, at the northernmost section of the lake.
Runoff from agricultural land causes 40 percent of the algae blooms from phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain, according to the state.
A blue green algae bloom is blamed for a fish die-off in the bay two years ago.
Phosphorus loading into the Missisquoi Bay is the highest in the state. The Conservation Law Foundation says farming in the region is the leading cause of the pollution.
CLF recommends that farmers plant cover crops in the winter, grow vegetative buffers between their farm and waterways, fence animals out of waterways, and adopt other farming practices designed to keep nutrients on the farm and out of Lake Champlain.
But many farmers oppose “blanketed” mandates on their farming practices. Every farm has different soil, slope and crop production, and they say these standards cannot be applied uniformly in the region.
But it remains unclear whether these standards would be the same for all farms. Chuck Ross, the secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, said he is working with his legal staff to determine how much flexibility the state has in implementing CLF’s recommendations.
“I have not made any decision on anything. That is the point of this hearing,” Ross said.
Anthony Iarrapino, a senior attorney for CLF, wrote the petition, which he said gives the agency the discretion to issue an order that matches “specific practices to specific pollution sources.”
“We’re not asking for a one size fits all,” Iarrapino said.
If the state rejects CLF’s petition outright, the organization can appeal the decision.
Kent Henderson, chair of the water quality group Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, said if the state wants to address the water quality, it is going to have to put boots on the ground.
“You have to go visit one on one,” Henderson said. The state could identify areas in the region where phosphorus is most likely to enter waterways using a critical source areas map. He said it should then work with farmers on what plan is best for their situation.
“You can’t just walk on with a list – or mail them a list – and say you’ve got to do this,” Henderson said.
Nonetheless, he and other stakeholders at the hearing said the plan will require more funding for enforcement and education of farmers who are unfamiliar with the rules.
Bill Moore, a lobbyist for the Vermont Farm Bureau, opposes the regulations. “The money to implement it is simply not there,” he said.
Lawmakers last year discussed several funding options for the cleanup – like additional taxes on rooms and meals and rental cars. Legislation raising revenue for the Lake Champlain restoration plan will be taken up next year, lawmakers have said.
Henderson suggested a per parcel fee – much like a property tax – that would fund a third party utility that would invest the money in farming operations. But so far, he said, the state lacks political will to pay for the cleanup.
The Department of Environmental Conservation is drafting a funding proposal for the much larger plan to clean up Lake Champlain to present to lawmakers in the next legislative biennium. It plans to have a funding proposal by the end of the year.
Some farmers attending the meeting have already put in place infrastructure and systems to limit runoff. This included barnyard runoff control systems, crop rotation when weather permits, filter strips, nutrient management plans and other practices.
Currently the state does not reward these farmers for their voluntary goodwill.
Richard Longway is co-owner of a 500-head dairy farm in Swanton. He started farming in 1978 and now grows corn to feed his cows. Last year, he and others built a bunker to collect silage leachate – a liquid that forms when water contacts silage like corn feed – and also has in place a nutrient management program.
“I would really like to see us get credit somewhere for the things we have done,” he told the secretary during the hearing.
Only small amounts of blue-green algae have been reported this year, according to the Department of Health. Algae in North Harbor on the southern section of the lake was reported this year, but has since dissipated.