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Pollution in Lake Champlain, Part 2: Knee-high in July takes on new meaning

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Posted on July 22, 2010 |
By Kathryn Flagg



Editor’s note: This article is the second in a three-part series about the Lake Champlain clean-up efforts. After examining the state of the county’s waterways on July 15, we’re turning our attention to the divisive debate about the role agriculture plays in water quality degradation. (All articles are available after print publication online at www.addisonindependent.com.) In next week’s final installment, we look ahead to what’s on the horizon for clean up efforts in the Lake Champlain basin.

ADDISON COUNTY — In fields throughout Addison County, warm weather and sunny skies mean corn is shooting up fast.

Ask some environmentalists or clean water advocates, and they’ll tell you corn might be as sure a sign as algae blooms that Lake Champlain is in trouble.

The thinking goes like this: Most conventional dairy farms in Vermont rely on corn to feed their cows. The feed boosts milk production, but many farmers put fertilizer, often in the form of liquid manure, onto the ground to encourage that corn to grow in the first place. Later, as farmers till the fields they keep in production, earth is churned up — and the erosion from tilling sends phosphorus-laden soil into nearby waterways.

Meanwhile, corn supports dairies that have ballooned in size since the middle of last century. Though the number of dairy farms in Vermont has dropped by 90 percent between 1947 and 2008, the size of farms that remain has gone up. Average herd size increased from 49 cows in 1974 to 120 cows in 2007. The number of farms milking more than 200 cows stood at six percent in 1997, but doubled over the next 10 years. Those large farms now account for almost half the milk produced in the state.

The concern about conventional, modern dairy practices gets at the heart of a complicated debate in Addison County and around the state: With agriculture responsible for roughly half of the phosphorus heading into Lake Champlain, what role should farmers be playing in cleaning up the lake? How much — and perhaps more importantly, how fast — do farmers need to be changing their practices?

In many ways it’s a he-said, she-said argument, with conventional farmers and state organizations pitted against activists, who chide both for maintaining an allegedly dangerous status quo.

Locally, Leicester resident James Maroney is arguably the most vocal individual in the conversation about agriculture and lake pollution. A former organic dairy farmer, Maroney is also the author of the book “The Political Economy of Milk.”

Long before he became concerned about lake pollution, he railed against the current state of the dairy industry in Vermont. Dairy farmers are just now coming out of one of the longest economic downturns in recent history, but Maroney argues that Vermont’s dairy industry is trapped in an economic model that makes no sense. Despite the fact that the surplus of milk on the national scale is larger than the entire amount of milk produced in the entire state of Vermont each year, Maroney says, Vermont farmers continue to produce milk at a loss while externalizing many of the costs of their struggling industry.

But Maroney’s calls for change — for dairy farmers to switch to organic farming, for instance, which he thinks would make more sense economically and environmentally — have largely fallen on deaf ears.

“Dairy farmers are impervious to change. I think they would rather just hit the wall, which they’re not far from doing, rather than change,” he said. “It suddenly occurred to me that in lake pollution they have an Achilles’ heel.”

THE REGULATION DEBATE

Maroney’s argument is that the state cannot continue to justify the overproduction of milk at the expense of water quality — a claim that gets at the big-picture debate. The ins and outs of regulating dairy practices are more complicated.

A hodgepodge of money for encouraging better clean water practices on farms is available at the state and federal levels, ranging from programs through the Farm Service Agency to compensate farmers for taking buffers along streams and waterways out of active production to money for fencing cattle out of streams.

The “Clean and Clear” action plan that the state rolled out 10 years ago also encourages better farm practices, both through a new permitting program that it rolled out for medium- and large-sized farms in 2007, and through cost-sharing plans for building structures like manure pits. According to Julie Moore, the executive director of the Clean and Clear program, federal and state funds can cover up to 90 percent of the costs associated with a project like that.

There are other incentives in place, using state money to encourage farmers to put down winter rye to make sure that a “cover crop” is in place come spring. (This reduces the risk of runoff and erosion.) Certain types of tilling, which also reduce erosion, are also encouraged.

The incentives are expensive. In 2009, the Clean and Clear program spent $1.4 million on the “best management practices” program at 37 farms. Between 2005 and 2009, the state spent more than $2.2 million on nutrient management plans.

Since the Clean and Clear program was introduced in 2003, the program has spent $31.6 million on the best management practices program through fiscal year 2009. All together, agricultural parts of the Clean and Clear program have cost $45.8 million since the program’s inception.

Cost aside, there’s some concern that permitting plans aren’t going far enough (or moving fast enough) to address clean water violations on Vermont’s farms.

The state’s accepted agricultural practices (AAPs) are “one size fits all” and ill-equipped to handle the varied topography in which Vermont’s farms operate, according to Marty Illick, the executive director of the Lewis Creek Association. Soil types, slope, and a piece of land’s proximity to a stream or lake — none of these, she went on, have an influence on how a farmer is advised to manage his or her land.

“You just can’t have farms up to the lake edge. Period. You just can’t do that anymore. That is so obvious, and yet we do it all the time,” Illick said.

Illick’s organization has been monitoring water quality along the Lewis Creek for more than 20 years, and she said that their data gives them a very specific picture of problem areas along the waterway. They’ve taken that data to the state, but she thinks politicians come up short when it comes to regulating better practices.

“Our leadership is still very much in denial, very much,” she said. “That is by design. Secretaries of every agency are appointed by the governor. You walk around with blinders on.”

One of the biggest problems is money. But lawmakers are skittish about regulations, too.

“The easiest way to do it would be to regulate it. But can we do that? We don’t have the political will to do that,” she said. She pointed at buffer bills that languish in the Statehouse but never advance. “Every state around us in New England has lake buffers. Vermont doesn’t. We are in denial. Totally in denial.”

Illick isn’t the only activist making allegations of a lack of political will: Anthony Iarrapino of the Conservation Law Foundation and Maroney corroborate the claim.

Iarrapino goes further, too: Not only are politicians balking at stricter rules, he said, but the very agencies that regulate clean water offenses run into a conflict of interest in doing so.

CLF is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to strip away Vermont’s authority to administer the Clean Water Act. Iarrapino said that Vermont is one of the only states in the country does not have a Clean Water Act permitting program for farm pollution run by an environmental agency, and that instead the state relies on a program run by the Agency of Agriculture.

He said CLF has investigated the Agency of Agriculture and Agency of Natural Resources’ records, and found the same pattern: The agencies identify problems, give farms long periods of time to correct those problems, but don’t actually enforce federal standards.

“One of our main concerns is that philosophically the Agency of Agriculture’s job is to be a booster for agriculture,” Iarrapino said. “Even in that respect we’re not 100 percent convinced they do a good job. Our view is that the Agency of Agriculture is a booster for a certain type of agriculture.”

Iarrapino went on: That “type” of agriculture tends to be a dairy that’s capital- and debt-intensive — and runs the risk of being a major polluter.

STATE REBUTTAL

State officials disagree, both on the issue of regulations and political determination. Julie Moore said changes are being rolled out, but residents in the region sometimes have an unrealistic view of just how long it takes to turn around a phosphorus problem that has been mounting for decades, if not centuries.

“The expectations for progress … need to be balanced with how long it took to create this problem in the first place,” Moore said.

She also pointed out that the vast majority — 97 percent — of the phosphorus entering the lake is washed in from non-point sources, meaning diffuse points located across the thousands of square miles that make up the Lake Champlain watershed.

When it comes to regulating farms in particular, Moore said that almost three years after the state rolled out its permitting programs for medium- and large-sized farms in 2007, regulators are reaching the point of enforcement. Inspectors have pointed out problem areas, and are working to bring bigger farms into compliance.

But money is a problem for many farms.

“If people say they can’t afford to (make changes), they probably can’t afford to do it,” Moore said. She added that Clean and Clear has bumped up the maximum cost share the program will provide in connection with federal money to cover improvement projects on farms.

Moore also said that allegations that the Agency of Agriculture runs into a conflict of interest when it comes to regulating water quality concerns on farms oversimplify an issue that is deeply complex.

“I think any concerns about that are far outweighed by the fact that you also need a high level of technical expertise to get in there and figure out what solutions are going to work the best,” she said. “That expertise is housed within the Agency of Agriculture.”

FARMERS PUSH BACK

Farmers are pushing back at what they say is a misperception about their industry.

Marie Audet’s family owns a 1,200-cow farm in Bridport. Audet said the family farmers are doing what they can to reduce runoff. That includes using an aerator to punch holes in the soil before spreading manure, which Audet said is a big step toward reducing the amount of phosphorus that washes off the land.

“The more we know, the more we do,” Audet said. “And our way of life and our livelihood, it depends on land and water and healthy animals. It’s not to our advantage to pollute anything.”

But changes like the aerator, which Audet said is gaining in popularity in the region, are expensive, and she pinpointed money as the single biggest obstacle for farmers who are looking to make clean water changes on their farms.

“We’re just coming off the worst downturns in history, so it’s hard to invest all the necessary capital,” Audet said. “That’s where the federal programs and state programs are helpful.”

Craig Miner, the county executive for the Farm Service Agency, agreed that money may be a limiting factor. The county FSA office is working with between 90 and 100 farmers on conservation reserve programs, using federal funding to compensate farmers for creating voluntary buffers along streams.

“Farmers want to do the best that they can,” Miner said. “If a fairly substantial portion of that cost has to be borne by the farmer, it’s difficult. … It’s a public benefit, and a lot of these costs need to be borne by the public.”

The good news, he went on, is that more farmers are participating in water quality programs than were paying attention 20 years ago.

“They want to be part of the solution,” Miner said.

According to Cornwall dairy farmer John Roberts, that means identifying the problems, and moving forward.

“One of the things I do believe in is farmers can change, farmers can be educated to change, farmers need to be educated to change,” Roberts said. “You’re not going to see agriculture suddenly banned in the state of Vermont. You’ve got to say, how can we adapt the system? I’m convinced that from a water quality standpoint, yes, farmers have been a problem. But I also think there’s greater room for making changes in the system so they are no longer a problem.”

Kathryn Flagg can be reached at kathryn.flagg@gmail.com. The Addison Independent newsroom is at news@addisonindependent.com.

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