CLF appeals for stricter controls on agricultural runoff

Mississquoi Bay from the Tyler Place.
Mississquoi Bay. Photo by Cindy Hill
An environmental law firm is again pushing the state to take stronger action on cleaning up Lake Champlain.

The Conservation Law Foundation this week filed a petition asking the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to enforce new regulations to curb agricultural phosphorus runoff into Missisquoi Bay.

“We’re hoping that this presents the state with the opportunity to change its approach from what’s clearly not working now, which is strictly voluntary measures, to more robust pollution control required when it comes to agricultural operations,” said Anthony Iarrapino, a senior attorney for CLF.

The state is in the process of submitting a final Lake Champlain cleanup proposal to the Environmental Protection Agency by the end of the month. The EPA will use the plan to issue the state a new phosphorus reduction plan, called the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), later this summer.

But environmental groups say the state has not presented a plan that will achieve the necessary phosphorus reductions. And CLF is now asking the state to start taking stronger action to set up new farming regulations backed by strict enforcement rather than voluntary compliance.

“What we are doing is responding to that shortfall,” Iarrapino said. “We can’t just rely of the good will of the farmers that have stepped up to the plate.”

CLF is asking the agency to start in the Missisquoi Bay area, the segment of the lake hardest hit by phosphorous loading. Phosphorous runoff is responsible for toxic summer algae blooms considered harmful to health and aquatic habitat.

Agricultural runoff from fertilizer and livestock waste is the state’s leading source of this pollution, especially in the lake’s northernmost segment, according to the Missisquoi Bay’s watershed plan.

That’s why the petition calls on farmers to plant cover crops year-round, seed grassed waterways and vegetative filter strips and exclude animals from waterways.

“Everything that we are asking for is already at working in the watershed and is working to reduce phosphorus,” Iarrapino said.

And the proposed practices could save farmers money by keeping soil on their farms rather than letting it flow downstream into Lake Champlain, CLF says.

“What’s good for clean water is good for the bottom line of their business,” Iarrapino said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin will send a commitment letter to the EPA with a final proposal for cleaning up the lake by May 30. But CLF aims to nudge the state forward on its commitment to clean waters with the petition. And they will continue to push.

“We are very much viewing this as helping the state to round out the package,” Iarrapino said. “This is not the last petition we will be filing. Our petition activity is likely not limited to agricultural sources.”

Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross said he did not have a chance to read the petition before this story was published. He said the agency is confident the state’s TMDL proposal will address water quality issues in the state.

“We are very pleased with the cooperation and work of the agriculture community in the state working with us and the EPA to develop and array of practices that we are going to incorporate into the TMDL,” Ross said.

He said the agency has inadequate staffing and resources to review compliance with current acceptable agricultural practices. AAPs are designed to limit runoff.

“We do not have the staff to inspect every farm in the state of Vermont, so we follow up on AAPs on a complaint basis,” Ross said.

CLF says the current agriculture standards contribute to ongoing pollution in violation the federal Clean Water Act. And if the state does not adopt a stronger plan, CLF can have the state environmental court rule on the petition.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears, the governor’s point person on the lake cleanup, said there are many enforceable agricultural runoff standards currently in place. And he said the state’s most recent proposal to the EPA adds to this list.

He said the plan includes putting in place new technical and inspection staff to make sure farmers meet the standards. Those standards include livestock exclusion from streams, a new small farm certification program, and new nutrient management programs to ensure efficient manure applications and cover cropping designed to keep phosphorus on fields.

The state will host a roundtable discussion to go over the state’s plan late next week, he said.

Agricultural Runoff

As directed by the EPA, the state is giving the Missisquoi Bay area of Franklin County high priority to address phosphorus loading from agricultural runoff.

Agriculture sector runoff is the largest contributor to the lake’s phosphorus levels, accounting for about 40 percent of the total loading, according to the state. But as much as 64 percent of the phosphorus loading into the Missisquoi Bay comes from farms, according to the environmental consulting firm Stone Environmental.

About 25 percent of the Missisquoi Bay watershed is in agricultural use. There are about 290 dairy farms and an additional 100 farms with animal-related activities located within the watershed, according to the bay’s watershed plan.

CLF’s petition does not “cast a net” over all farms, Iarrapino said. Instead, he said it focuses on “critical sources” of phosphorous runoff first.

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John Herrick

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  • Bill Dunnington

    Thank you, CLF – please stay with this.

    • Sally Burrell

      Yes, thank you!

  • John Dupee

    Nice start! Data also shows a significant amount of agricultural runoff south of Vergennes which has also been ignored.

  • Mary Skutel

    For too many years the state has been ignoring this dire problem of farm run- off, both waste and fertilizer. It is my understanding that Quebec has taken a stronger stance on this issue with mandatory not volunteer contols. We should look to the success of our neighbors to the north and require similar methods to control this worsening problem. I live on the Lake……it doesn’t take a genius to notice what happens to the Lake after a heavy spring or summer rain. All that fertilizer and waste makes it way directly down our streams and rivers into the Lake. Don’t back off of this problem, CLF!

  • Jacob Miller

    Better late than never, CFL.

    However, at a hearing held by a House committee this spring in Bridport, dominated by agricultural interests, speakers contended the problem is caused by runoff from town roads and rural residents. It wasn’t from dairy farms they claimed.

    It will be difficult to change farmer’s behaviors without strict enforcement and the cooperation from the Ag Dept, which is reluctant to enforce existing regulations.

    Hopefully this effort by the CFL will lead to changes. A start would be to not allow fertilizers or manure to be spread on row crops in the flood plain. Even more effective would be to prohibit planting of row crops in the flood plain. Especially if the state continues to experience extreme weather conditions.

  • Judith McLaughlin

    Why stop at Lake Champlain? CLF should include all lakes, large and small in VT.

  • Stu Lindberg

    How many of the 390 farms talked about are getting federal and state farm subsidies? Are the taxpayers subsidizing water pollution?