Clusters of blue-green algae splashed against the shores of Georgia Beach and St. Albans Bay Park intermittently for at least a month this summer.
State officials are now planning a short-term effort to inspect farms in Franklin County that surround the bays for water quality violations.
Phosphorus runoff from farms is the leading source of pollution in the lake, and has become the central focus of the state proposal to restore Lake Champlain’s water quality to standards set by the federal Clean Water Act.
The state will ask farmers to keep livestock out of streams, plant buffer strips between their fields and the waterways, and adopt other farming practices that keep manure on their fields and out of Lake Champlain.
Tim Camisa, of St. Albans, has lived on the lake for more than a decade. This year, he said algae blooms are the worst he has seen. Despite the state’s effort to control the pollution, he is not convinced the plan will work.
“It’s maintaining the status quo of trying to get that land to hold the manure better,” he said.
Camisa, CEO of Vermont Organics Reclamation, said the state should instead focus on limiting the amount of manure farmers apply on their fields. Many farmers fertilize with too much manure in his view.
His St. Albans-based business purchases excess manure from farmers and manufactures liquid fertilizer and plant soils sold nationwide. Vermont Organics Reclamation buys on average 20 percent of a farm’s manure and pays farmers between $6 to $8 per cubic yard. The soils and fertilizer is sold to growers in cities.
Camisa said his business acts as a nutrient trading program, and a similar model could be used across the Lake Champlain basin to curb pollution. Because he gives farmers money for excess manure, there is an incentive to spread only the “precise” amount necessary, he said.
Some states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay have adopted nutrient trading programs. Sewage treatment plant operators have the option to either reduce the amount of pollution they send into the bay or they can purchase offsets, or phosphorus “credits,” from another polluter.
Camisa said a trading program would prevent more phosphorus “imports” to the Lake Champlain watershed, and encourage “exports” to areas with poor soil quality.
Bill Moore, a lobbyist for the Vermont Farm Bureau, said some farms do have a surplus of manure, but others do not have enough. He said some farmers are careful to not apply too much, which can be bad for growing crops. Nonetheless, he said some farmers may welcome selling their excess manure as another soil management tool.
Christopher Kilian, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation, said purchasing excess manure from farms is a good idea. Hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted when valuable nutrients wash into the lake, he said.
But, he said, “The reality is that there are only a handful of examples where nutrient trading has worked.”
CLF is pressuring the state to enforce water quality regulations to protect the lake.
Vermont’s proposal aims to curb nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from farms, forests, roads and cities. To do so, the state plans to develop standards and permits to keep nutrients in the ground and out of waterways, and also reduce stormwater runoff from urban areas.
Kilian said it would be difficult to set up a trading program across the various sectors. For example, he said, it is unclear how to put a value on phosphorus credits from farms, wastewater treatment plants or stormwater. “The devil is in the details,” he said.
Instead, he said, the state should focus on regulatory programs and enforcement because a nutrient trading program would be a distraction from the focus of the current plan that is yet to be implemented.
“We have programs we know will work if they are implemented and enforced,” he said.
In 2012, the Agency of Agriculture received a $781,226 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine whether a nutrient trading program would work in Vermont.
A state official said the state has not spent all the money, and is first waiting on the Environmental Protection Agency to issue the state’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan before it releases a request for proposals for the consultant. The TMDL will determine the pollution reduction goals necessary for compliance.
Marli Rupe, a state agricultural water quality specialist, said the state will hire a consultant to evaluate the efficacy of nutrient trading.
Camisa said he has been working with farmers for over a decade at Vermont Organic. Farmers have received much of the blame for the state’s water quality issue, he said, but the government has not provided them with the necessary support system.
“No farms. No food,” he said. “We have to help the farmer. We don’t have to start figuring out ways to fine the farmer or regulate the farmer. Just provide a system that helps the farmer.”