FERRISBURGH — It’s been seven years since Garry Clark says manure first ran through the pond at his Ferrisburgh home, and after the most recent incident, he said that he’s had enough.
It’s not just that the manure fouls his property, he said he’s worried about of the health of nearby Lake Champlain.
State officials, who are looking into Clark's case, said farm runoff is an issue they constantly encounter in an agricultural state and county.
Clark has resided on Cross Road for almost 18 years. He said the influx of manure generally happens two to three times a year, always during the spring, summer and fall. The pond changes from muddy brown to pitch black, bubbles form, and dead fish pop up on the surface of the water. When it happens, he said, the stench from the pond becomes unbearable, and the frogs that usually take shelter in the water will jump in for just a second, then hop straight back out.
“I’m used to muddy water (in the pond),” he said. “But it takes a lot of manure to get here. It’s not just a five-gallon bucket.”
Clark says he has been reporting the issue to the state for six years now, and that Deer Valley Farm, just upstream from him, is the source of the runoff. Deer Valley, owned by Raymond and Cornelius Brands, operates under a medium farm operation permit, which covers farms with between 200 and 699 mature dairy animals.
Raymond Brands declined to comment on the issue.
Jim Leland, lab and standards director in the division of Agricultural Resource Management and Environmental Stewardship at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said last year the farm was found to be in violation of two statutes of its permit: applying manure in excess of the amount that the farm’s nutrient management plan allows and applying manure in such a way that it entered waters of the state.
The state entered into an assurance of discontinuance with Raymond Brands at the time, with administrative penalties to be assessed if the violations were not addressed. Leland said penalties in agreements like these can total up to $50,000, though the penalty was set at $1,500 in this case.
The state set requirements for the farm, including installing perennially vegetative buffers around row crops and fields and 10-foot buffers between crops and waterways to minimize the risk of water contamination.
“We are trying to resolve the problem and not necessarily be an enforcement arm,” said Leland.
He added that before Deer Valley Farm was found to have runoff violations, the farm had also ensured that its manure and silage storage systems met best practice recommendations for size and engineering specifications.
Leland also said he’s not sure whether buffers will be the solution to the problem.
“From what I’ve seen there on the cropland they’re managing, (water) all drains in one direction,” he said. “It’s a type of situation where I’m not sure what the solution is going to be. They’ve done quite a bit in response to the issues they’ve had.”
A RECURRING ISSUE
Three weeks ago was the most recent manure flow that Clark reported to the state. At that point, he snapped photographs of the 30 to 40 dead fish that turned up on the surface of his pond.
Clark said numerous officials from the Agency of Agriculture and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources have been to his house over the years to inspect the pond. He said numerous officials, including former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee, have promised to address the issue. After the most recent incident, Clark got a call from current secretary of agriculture, Chuck Ross.
“I want you to know we’re going to follow up on this,” said Ross in a voice message that Clark played for the Independent. “I’ll have our staff follow up on this issue.”
Leland said his office initiated their investigation within days of Clark’s most recent complaint, though he is unsure how long his office will take to reach a final decision.
For Clark, it can’t be soon enough. He said the repeated runoff flows have raised concerns for him over pollution in Lake Champlain, about a quarter mile from his house as the crow flies.
“I’m not so worried about my pond, but it’s the lake I’m worried about,” he said. “I’m a scuba diver, I’m a sailor — I spend a lot of time on the lake.”
A STATEWIDE PROBLEM
Leland estimated that his office does 100 to 150 investigations a year in response to complaints about accepted agricultural practice violations — not just about runoff.
“We may find issues in 12 to 15 percent of them,” he said.
In addition, the state routinely inspects large farm operations annually, while Leland said medium farm operations are inspected every three years, on average.
Farmers looking to implement best management practices like buffer zones can access a variety of state and federal cost-sharing programs, as well as seek advice and planning resources from Agency of Agriculture, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and local watershed and conservation groups.
Rick Hopkins, an environmental analyst for the Agency of Natural Resources water quality division, said that even for farms that implement best management practices, agricultural runoff, including manure and eroded topsoil, can be an issue.
This spring proved to be an especially difficult time for state waterways, said Hopkins, given the large amounts of rainfall across the region.
“A lot of runoff ended up flowing downhill into our rivers and streams and ended up in Lake Champlain,” said Hopkins.
Runoff in the water can lead to escalated levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, which stimulate plant growth. While Hopkins said that is desirable on agricultural fields, it can encourage algae growth and deplete dissolved oxygen in the water, making it less habitable for other water-dwellers.
It’s not just agricultural sources that affect Vermont’s waterways — he said runoff from suburban areas, commercial parking lots and even forests enters the water, and that it’s difficult to differentiate between different sources.
But according to a 2010 Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation report, portions of Otter Creek, the Middlebury River and Lewis Creek were found to be over the recommended limit for e. coli contamination due to agricultural runoff.
Still, Hopkins said that in recent years, best management practices have helped to lower the amount of agricultural runoff flowing into state waterways — though he said it’s difficult to separate the sources of water pollution.
“We’ve seen and should feel very proud about the water quality progress we’ve made in the past 30 years,” he said.
But he emphasized that there’s still a long way to go toward curbing pollution issues.
“It’s taken us quite a while to get to this point as far as water quality issues go. It’s probably going to take us a while to get to where we need to be.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.