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.