EPA zeroes in on phosphorus farm runoff for Lake Champlain cleanup

Photo by Chris Court/Creative Commons
Photo by Chris Court/Creative Commons

The state will propose new measures designed to curb farms’ phosphorus runoff from the most polluted sections of Lake Champlain as part of a cleanup plan required under the federal Clean Water Act.

One year ago, the state sent a plan to improve Lake Champlain’s water quality to the Environmental Protection Agency. But EPA pollution models indicate the plan does not restore water quality to state standards in the South Lake and Missisquoi Bay watersheds.

“Those segments of the lake will require significant reductions,” said Dave Deegan, a spokesperson for EPA’s New England Regional Office.

Fertilizer runoff from farms will be targeted in these areas, state officials say. For areas like South Lake A, where the EPA estimates that agriculture accounts for 89 percent of phosphorus flowing into lake, some farmers must go above current legal obligations to reduce runoff and erosion from their farms.

“Our presence is going to be increased. The actions on the part of farmers will be amplified,” said Chuck Ross, agriculture secretary for Vermont.

The Legislature approved funding for 8 new positions at the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets this year. Ross said the agency will travel these watersheds this summer to educate farmers about practices required by law to prevent pollution.

When those new efforts are not enough, he said the state will ask farmers to implement other measures that could include cover cropping, planting wider buffers between waterways, rotating different crops or taking land out of production.

Ross said the agency will talk to farmers about making changes to their farm. He said he expects some will sell their farms instead of making the changes.

But he said the practices will be unique for each farm and targeted in areas where they can improve water quality.

“I’m not going ask people to spend money to do something that doesn’t need to be done,” he said. “We’re looking to require them where [changes] are needed.”

He said some farmer and watershed alliance groups are already helping prepare farmers for new rules that will begin to take effect in July next year.

“That’s the kind of change that we need,” Ross said. “It’s not the Agency of Agriculture showing up, it’s your neighbor showing up.”

Farmers will have financial support this year for water quality protection projects. The state last year received more than $60 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grants over five years for conservation projects that that prevent soil erosion and fertilizer runoff. Ross said there is also state and federal money available to help farmer put land into conservation and transition from one type of farm to another.

The water bill passed by the Legislature this year, H.35, sets a timeline for the agency to propose new rules to protect water quality. If signed into law, the agency by July 2016 would proposed standards for mandatory cover cropping and livestock exclusion from waterways, require manure applicators to be certified, and by July 2017, small farms must be certify that they are complying with water quality laws.

Deegan, of the EPA, said the new legislation, together with initiatives the state agencies are working on, creates additional measures to reduce phosphorus. He said there is a “sturdy foundation” to restore water quality in lake champlain due to new program requirements, deadlines, establishment and funding of the Clean Water Fund and additional staff for water quality programs.

The state hopes to provide the EPA with an updated plan in the next two weeks, according to David Mears, commissioner for the Department of Environmental Conservation.

The EPA says it will review the updated plan before it expects to issue a total maximum daily load value (TMDL) – the maximum amount of a pollutant a body of water can accept and still meet quality standards – for public review and comment by the middle of July. The agency says it will also work with the state and review the water quality bill, H.35, before issuing a TMDL value.

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  • James Maroney

    The governor said a few weeks ago that 99.99% of farmers are doing the right thing. The Agency of Agriculture says we have 7,000 farmers. Therefore, there is 0.7 of one farmer out there who is polluting the lake. To find this fractional farmer, the agency needed an appropriation of $7M/year.

    Vermont’s position is that there is nothing wrong with the way the other 6,999.01 are farming and there is no reason for them to change.

  • Conservation programs have limited impact on waterways — USDA economist

    Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter
    Published: Friday, May 1, 2015

    The Agriculture Department must reframe how it implements its voluntary conservation programs to effectively address water quality problems, an economist wrote in an article out today.

    Marc Ribaudo, a senior economist for USDA’s Economic Research Service, said that, despite billions of dollars invested in conservation measures, these programs are not enough to address large-scale agricultural pollution, such as runoff in the Mississippi River or the Chesapeake Bay.

    “While some water quality metrics have improved in some agriculturally influenced watersheds, others have deteriorated and more generally, outcomes have remained short of established water quality goals,” Ribaudo wrote in the latest issue of Choices, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association.

    The reasons for this are twofold, he said. For one, non-point-source pollution discharges are unevenly shared among farmers. Ribaudo gives the example of the Chesapeake Bay, where 20 percent of the cropland loses up to 7.5 times the weight of nitrogen per acre that the remaining 80 percent loses.

    There are also social factors at play, said Ribaudo. Farmers typically enroll in conservation programs for their own self-interest, rather than for the societal need for clean water. It’s not that these “productivists” do not care about the environment, he said, but that values like increasing yields and profits tend to guide decisions on land management.

    Conservation advocates should tap into these farmers’ entrepreneurial character to achieve better results, Ribaudo argued. In order to make voluntary programs, like Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, effective, USDA should introduce compliance mechanisms that require a certain level of results to be considered eligible, he said. One of the challenges in implementing these programs is that the link between actions and outcomes is very difficult to see, he added.

    Ribaudo also took issue with linking financial assistance to the programs.

    “By linking payments to practice costs rather than the provision of environmental outcomes, voluntary financial assistance programs limit the ability of farmers to act entrepreneurially or to introduce innovative ideas into conservation management, things that may be highly valued by productivists,” he wrote.

    A January 2014 Government Accountability Office report found that reliance on voluntary programs to clean up runoff from farms, parking lots and lawns was unlikely to help communities achieve Clean Water Act goals (Greenwire, Jan. 14, 2014).
    Voluntary programs are limited in scope for several reasons, said Suzy Friedman, director of agricultural sustainability at the Environmental Defense Fund. There’s a relatively small pot of money that doesn’t necessarily go to the lands where nutrient pollution reductions are best achieved. The paperwork process for the programs can be cumbersome and long. And the majority of agricultural landowners get their advice from private companies, not the federal government.

    Engaging the private sector “is how … we are going to get to scale and get to scale in those significant areas,” said Friedman. “You need to go through the advisers that they trust.”

    Authorized under the 2014 farm bill, conservation programs like EQIP and CSP would have their budgets dramatically cut in the Obama administration’s fiscal 2016 proposal (Greenwire, Feb. 20).

  • David Bresett

    Sounds like Flatlanders don’t like the farmers. Simple fix for farmers. Kick out the Flatlanders. Problem solved.

  • Neil Johnson

    I can’t see how a program could even be rolled out if the known outcome is a reduction of Farms, to which Vermont is trying to promote.

    Nutrients lost = loss of profit and quality growth. James and his article seems to be on the right track.

    Fining a farmer $15,000, which was in a previous article doesn’t do anyone any good except make the state look like 900 lb Gorilla, and one that might need to brush up on social and business skills.

    James is making way too much sense. Perhaps there should have been a review and education and realignment of goals within the department.

    We’re all on the same team. We all really want the same goals. Albeit perhaps David has a point that all people might not be a good match for living in the country.