Cows, corn and cash: Lake Champlain water quality studies net frustration

Mississquoi Bay from the Tyler Place.

Mississquoi Bay from the Tyler Place. Photo by Cindy Hill

Fourteen months have elapsed since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rescinded approval of Vermont’s legal limit on the daily amount of phosphorus entering Lake Champlain. Since then, data collection and technical studies have flooded the Champlain basin, but lake-area residents are growing frustrated with the state’s failure to take substantive steps to thwart the phosphoros-induced blooms of toxic blue-green algae that will likely return this summer to threaten fishing, beaches and drinking water supplies.

Two sets of working groups are under way, one evaluating lake water quality and one engaged in watershed analysis. EPA projects that technical reports will be available for public review by the end of summer, then the draft Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limit for phosphorus will be released sometime in 2013, “but we haven’t put a fine date on that,” says Lynne Hamjian, surface water branch chief of EPA Region 1 (New England).

The EPA’s disapproval decision, which arose as a result of a lawsuit by the Conservation Law Foundation asserting that the prior standard contained insufficient assurances for water quality protection, contains no definitive deadlines. Once the TMDL is established by the EPA, it will be up to the State of Vermont to determine how to reduce total phosphorus loading to meet the standard. The state can require reductions from any of the major phosphorus contributors, including sewage treatment facilities, stormwater systems, and agricultural land uses.

Capt. Gil Gagner, proprietor of Bronzeback Guide Service and lifelong resident of Highgate Springs, says last summer brought the worst water conditions in Mississquoi Bay he’s ever seen.

“Crayfish are crawling up out of the water,” he says. “Clams died by the hundreds of thousands, just washed up and popped open and died. It was really bad. The state knows about it and they‘re not doing anything.” Gagner is not optimistic about that the present round of studies will lead to substantive change.

“I’m discouraged,” he says. “Till the money runs out they won’t stop studying. If somebody pisses at the top of the hill and it runs downhill, do you need to study that?”

Stench and weeds

Phosphorus is a nutrient, one of the three elements — along with nitrogen and potassium oxide — that make up the typical lawn and garden fertilizer. Excess nutrients brought into the state in the form of cattle feed or fertilizer have to go back out again, or the nutrient cycle becomes unbalanced, explains Eamon Twohig, a senior research technician at UVM’s Department of Plant and Soil Science.

“We either have to ship enough milk out of the region to make up for those nutrients coming in, or it gets dumped in the lake,” Twohig says.

Vermont’s soils are generally phosphorus-rich, so excess phosphorus additions from cow manure and chemical fertilizers flows downhill until it enters Lake Champlain. In shallow waters like Mississquoi and St. Albans bays and the south lake region, sunlight and warmth combined with this nutrient runoff produces thick crops of underwater weeds.

“It’s not like it used to be when I was a kid,” says Jerry Hayden, administrative assistant at Community College of Vermont in St. Albans and a lifelong fisherman of St. Albans Bay. “We went down to Black Bridge and caught huge fish, and it was crystal clear water. Now you can just about walk on it out there. If it gets hot, the weeds grow right out of the water, then there’s stuff on top of the water that floats and stinks real bad.”

That stench comes from blooms, or colonies, of toxic blue-green algae called cyanobacteria, which are sensitive to the ratio of nitrogen to dissolved phosphorus, called the “Redfield Ratio.” Healthy water bodies worldwide have about 16 to 20 parts nitrogen to every part of phosphorus. When excess phosphorus brings the ratio closer to 10 to 1, cyanobacteria growth explodes.

“The smell is horrendous, especially when that algae goes blue-green,” says Gil Gagner. His community of Highgate Springs sits right on Mississquoi Bay, “and when it smells bad, people leave. Some of the tourists leave and move inland. They just can’t stand the smell.”

It’s difficult to predict the blooms, which vary in intensity from year to year, but the trend is clearly towards worsening conditions. “Last year there were significant blooms. They were very dense and lasted a long time,” says Louis Porter, CLF’s lakekeeper. “Over the long term, there’s no question that we are seeing bigger and longer-term blooms.”

Safe drinking water standards

The smell is not the worst characteristic of cyanobacteria: It is toxic to humans and animals. Approximately a quarter-million households draw drinking water from Lake Champlain, although the public drinking water intakes are not near the warm, shallow areas where cyanobacteria is found, according to Maureen McClelland, senior public health adviser for drinking water for EPA Region 1.

Summer homes and camps that are not on public drinking water systems may pull water from the bays where cyanobacteria lurk, and should be attentive to any alerts posted by the Vermont and New York state health agencies.

Cyanobacteria has caused the death of pets who drank the infested water, and researchers have linked the toxins released by blue-green algae to negative health effects ranging from skin irritation to liver and kidney damage and cancer.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal information about cyanobacteria. Some people in New Hampshire are studying a nexus between Lou Gehrig’s disease and these toxins,” McClelland says. “They are definitely a concern.”

Although the World Health Organization sets stringent limits for cyanobacteria in public drinking water supplies, the EPA has not yet regulated cyanobacteria under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Three cyanotoxins are on the EPA’s Contaminant Candidate List being considered for future public drinking water supply testing, but moving from consideration to regulation is a slow process. Once there is an agency determination that regulation is needed, it can take three and a half years to develop the regulation, then another year or two to allow water utilities time to come into compliance with testing requirements.

Federal regulators must also evaluate cost-effective methods of treatment. If cyanobacteria get into some types of water filtration systems, “you can wind up bursting the cells and releasing the toxins and making it worse,” McClelland says. “It’s much better to prevent it from happening in the first place than to rely on filtering it out.”

While residents who drink lake water can’t expect regulatory protection anytime soon, Lake Champlain area water utilities will receive an informational fact sheet regarding cyanobacteria from the EPA sometime in May 2013.

Row crops and the honey wagon

A study for the International Joint Commission, funded by the Lake Champlain Basin Project, is using high-resolution lidar topographical data to identify critical phosphorus source areas in the land surrounding Mississquoi Bay. The data has revealed large differences in rainfall at different points within the Mississquoi Bay basin, and helped pinpoint individual fields which are the highest phosphorus contributors.

“Only a few fields are showing the highest levels of phosphorus,” says Julie Moore, a registered professional engineer, former Vermont Agency of Natural Resources employee, and group leader of water resources management for Stone Environmental. Agricultural land contributes 64 percent of the phosphorus load into Mississquoi Bay, the studies reveal, with farms around Rock River doing the largest share of damage. Nearly 60 percent of the phosphorus is contributed by only 10 percent of the land area, with fields planted in corn rotations generating the highest level of phosphorus.

Rainwater on a bare cornfield on a farm near Mississquoi Bay.

Rainwater on a bare cornfield on a farm near Mississquoi Bay. Photo by Cindy Hill

Corn creates more problems than other crops because of the high amounts of liquid manure, and any additional chemical fertilizers, used in its cultivation.

If all soil applications were stopped today, it would take 15 to 18 years for the phosphorus to dissipate from most croplands, and 40 years or more for corn lands, according to Don Meals of Ice Nine Environmental Consultants. Speaking at a conference on Lake Champlain water quality sponsored by the Vermont Environmental Consortium in April, Meals said that planting row crops like corn in Vermont flood plains “is generally not a good idea given the inputs and tillage decisions usually made. Sileage corn under the conventional management practices in our state is not the best idea.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an advisory branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has recently established edge-of-field monitoring stations in a number of locations to assess whether planting clover, winter rye, or other cover crops instead of leaving corn lands in bare dirt much of the year will slow the migration of manure-spread phosphorus into water bodies. This latest study follows NRCS expenditures of over $20 million in the Lake Champlain Basin on water quality, says Vicky Drew, state NRCS conservationist, but they can’t demonstrate what these expenditures have accomplished. “The movie ‘Bloom’ and the EPA decision on TMDL has made us scratch our heads,” she says. “We’ve made all these improvements, why aren’t we seeing improvements in the lake?”

Corporate agricultural giant Dupont is adding to the cornfield study fervor. The Friends of Northern Lake Champlain has received a grant through Dupont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred Community Partners Program to try an experimental method of spreading a Dupont-manufactured herbicide, tilling the field, and planting a cover crop all at the same time. The pilot program will test on a handful of Franklin County farms this year.

“We expect an earlier season this year and we anticipate more acreage going into corn to offset higher feed prices,” says organization chair and dairy veterinarian Kent Henderson. Through programs like this, the agricultural industry can resolve its own problems, Henderson asserts. “We don’t need new regulations and we don’t need staff people who are desk bound in Montpelier and Washington and aren’t out in the field.”

Even the impact of global warming is being studied before state and federal regulators move forward with substantive solutions. “How will the interchange of climate change and land use change affect the problem?” asks Chris Koliba of UVM’s EPSCoR, citing predictions for increased rainfall in the Lake Champlain region. “The nature of the problem is complex. We need more money to study this. We’ll need focus groups, modeling sessions and conferences about this.”

Fishing boat captain Gil Gagner is not impressed with the volume or the price of the studies. “It’s from cow shit. For $3 they could have bought a pair of rubber boots and walked upstream and figured that out,” he says. Gagner does not blame farmers, however; he places responsibility at the feet of state agencies that banned winter manure spreading as part of the adoption of a set of Accepted Agricultural Practice rules in 1995.

A 'honey wagon' or liquid manure truck on a dairy farm near Mississquoi Bay.

A 'honey wagon' or liquid manure truck on a dairy farm near Mississquoi Bay. Photo by Cindy Hill

Vermont was the first state in the nation to develop the winter spreading ban, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

Ironically, the intention of the ban was protection of water quality, because manure spread on frozen ground has a high potential to run off. However, the phosphorus in dry-stacked or composted manure is less biologically available than that in liquid manure or chemical fertilizers, so it is released into the water more slowly. Storing dry manure piles for up to six months is impractical and expensive, so the winter ban ruling inspired many farmers to switch to liquid manure storage. Liquid manure, spread on fields by the now-ubiquitous “honey wagon” trucks, is quicker than dry-stacked manure to run off into streams when it rains in the summer months, where the readily available phosphorus enters the seasonally warm lake water providing perfect conditions for weed and algae growth.

“I have great empathy for farmers, but the modern practices are terrible,” says Ted Tyler, owner of The Tyler Place resort on Mississquoi Bay. Tyler is a descendant of a local dairy family. “In retrospect going to the liquid manure was a mistake. Growing up here, they piled the manure and it didn’t stink. The liquid manure pits smell. It obviously isn’t helpful overall.”

Modern farming practices like liquid manure spreading require money-intensive equipment that leave many farmers deep in debt, creating a cycle pushing for higher milk yields to pay off the mounting debt load. This in turn requires more imported feed and fertilizer.

“They have now created a group of dependents – farmers with incredible debt loads,” says Dennis Hill, a resident of St. Albans Bay and former vice president of the St. Albans Area Watershed Association. A scholar of Vermont history, Hill notes that Vermont has had “burnt-over periods” in the past, such as when the sheep and woolen trades collapsed, and that it’s time for such a change again.

“St. Albans is such a wonderful community, full of smart, forward-thinking people,” Hill says. “The future of Franklin County does not lie in increasing dairy production, it’s in creating a diversity of great job possibilities.”

Unholy marriage, divisive enforcement

Tourism, not agriculture, is at the heart of Vermont’s economy, according to Ted Tyler. “From a business point of view, the lake is the real calling card for Vermont,” Tyler says. “But there’s very little in the way of enforcement. We’re studying it to death and there are a lot of people working on it, but the small farms are pretty much completely unregulated.”

Enforcement has taken a hit due to budget cuts over the last several years, admits David Mears, Vermont’s commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), a branch of the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR).

With 17 percent to 18 percent staff cuts over the last few years, the agency has shifted to complaint-driven enforcement due to an absence of investigators out in the field. Enforcement of water quality issues on farms is divided between ANR and the Agency of Agriculture.

“We’re partners right now with the Agency of Ag,” Mears says. “Having the two agencies now sounds more like a positive. Vermont is a small-scale space. You’re talking about your neighbors.”

This approach to enforcement relies on individuals filing complaints against their neighbors, a situation akin to leaving highway speeding enforcement up to drivers turning in fellow motorists on the highway, says James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International.

“I thought it inappropriate for state agencies to put the onus for compliance and enforcement on the public,” Ehlers says. “They are contributing to the division by pitting neighbor against neighbor.”

Dennis Hill agrees, describing the unneighborly scheme as “an unholy wedding between the ANR and Ag,” an example of the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.

Illusions and romance

To Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, agriculture should not be considered the only fox in the farmyard.

“There are a lot of different authors to the water quality problem,” Ross says. “Ag is clearly one and it’s a significant one, but not the only one. The focus on ag is too narrow relative to the issue. There is the result of decades of depositions and pollution. You can go back to the first tree cut, to combined stormwater-sewer systems. You can’t hold today’s farmers or any of this generation of actors responsible for all our decisions of yesteryear.”

Driving cars, flushing toilets and fertilizing lawns also contribute to nutrient loading in the lake, Ross says.

Ross attributes the emphasis on agriculture to the fact that it is so visible in the landscape, and to the mystique surrounding the farming industry.

“There are a lot of illusions and romances around agriculture,” he says. “Illusions that they are bad actors and romances about being quaint. But the ag community is like every community. There are some unbelievably exceptional producers who go above and beyond, and a few on the other end. Can we do it better? Must we adapt? Absolutely.”

The quaint-farm mythology underpins cultural support for letting farms engage in both pollution and labor practices that would likely result in stiff penalties in any other business arena.

“We continue to represent an ideal image of Vermont agriculture which is not real,” Dennis Hill says. “It’s not an economic driver, it’s an economic disabler. It’s an industry that is so unappealing that you can’t hire people to work in it. If my septic system failed I’d be fined and in jail and what not. But they are free to dump manure in the lake. This problem is about political will and recognizing that the emperor has no clothes.”

It is true that agriculture is treated differently under Vermont law, says DEC Commissioner David Mears, “because it is different, and that’s a conversation to have with the Legislature, whether they deserve that different treatment. There are farmers who are not behaving well and not engaging in good practices, but there are a whole lot more who are trying to work with us and I don’t want to lose them.”

Getting farmers and other members of the community talking to one another, rather than at one another, is critically important, says Jane Clifford, president of the Green Mountain Dairy Farmers’ Cooperative who milks 200 cows a day on a Starksboro farm that has been in the family for over 200 years. “It’s everyone’s challenge and opportunity. Farmer to farmer, how do we help our neighbors implement good practices? Use honey, not vinegar,” she says, suggesting that incorporating economic benefits will help.

Fisherman Gil Gagner agrees that economic incentives could help — and has a ready solution for the source of the funds. “A lot of farmers are doing what they ought to do and it’s making a difference,” he says. “What about the ones who aren’t coming along? The money the state spent on studies, they could have dealt with that.”

State regulators are beginning to sense public frustration, and are encouraging public dialogue. “It feels to me like right now is this critical period of time,” says DEC Commissioner Mears. “Governor Shumlin gets that, the Chamber of Commerce get that, and a growing number of farmers get it. People are willing to step up to the plate and talk about it. Our economic future depends on keeping the lake as a gem.”

Getting all the stakeholders in the same room to talk is a positive step towards cleaning up the lake, but talk will not prevent this summer’s wave of algae blooms. “People’s patience with bureaucracy and academia is running short,” says James Ehlers. “We have big problems and big problems require bold solutions.”

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  • MJ Farmer
  • Kel Varnsen

    Yes big problems do require bold solutions, but we have a legislative supermajority that is fascinated with implementing socialism and prioritizes that above everything else. So, problems such as this, and problems such as the steady deterioration of our roads and bridges take back seats to sending as much money as possible to the NEA, er, schools. This legislature goes as far as to manufacture problems in order to implement their solutions of choice, such as government-run health care. In the real world they would be fired for incompetence, in Vermont they are patted on the back and reelected. Stay tuned, the third world is coming to your back yard courtesy of the Vermont socialists.

    • Hal Stampson

      I don’t see how anything you’ve said here addresses the points raised in the article. You may as well say “I have a back ache, and the explanation is that the Democrats have a slight majority in the Senate.”
      Come on. This site isn’t for grousing.

  • Al Walskey

    Kel Varnsen’s comment “we have a legislative super-majority that is fascinated with implementing socialism and prioritizes that above everything else” is one that I take exception to. The problems with the lake existed long before the cries against socialism evolved. Gov. Douglas asked for and received lower standards for the lake during his tenure.

    Democracy is rooted in communities at every level coming together to cooperatively solve problems. What doesn’t work is the uncooperative “you’re on your own” demands being made by far right radicals some of whom believe that “what’s mine is ALL mine” and “what’s yours is mine too.” These are the folks who decry preventative regulations, like fracking, that respects the environment. They view any attempt at control as an assault on what they consider to be their unalienable right to do whatever they want just to make a buck regardless of the impact on their neighbors.

    In every place I’ve ever lived there’s what I call the “sacred pollution.” Sacred pollution is the pollution that is embraced because it’s the bread and butter that brings good paying jobs to the people and robust economic development for awhile. In Vermont it’s been dairy farms. In Pennsylvania it was strip mining coal, steel mills that polluted the water and smoke stack industry. Farms weren’t as much of a problem there compared to Vt. The pollution caused by these bread and butter businesses are almost always grandfathered because the community as a whole benefited from their existence. If dairy farms were more profitable they wouldn’t have to use every trick in the book to increase production in an attempt to almost make ends meet. A problem that doesn’t get much attention is the dense population growth with an emphasis on lakefront property. Both have a negative impact on the lake.

    We must all come together to solve common problems and not blame the bane of our existence on Democracy by misrepresenting it as socialism.

  • Suzi Barringer

    Before long, Vermont will be passing a law to put diapers on their cows so there won’t be any meadow muffins dropped in the fields…..might run off into the drinking H20! Imagine that! Maybe towns & cities ought to check out where all the sewage systems run to….might find some still dumping into the the smaller lakes, streams and ponds! And to think when I was growing up in VT, I was taught manure was good for fertilizing new plant growth!!! And people PAID to buy cow shit to put in their gardens! It’s not just the paper mills still polluting, it’s the people too!

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