Effectiveness of water cleanup under study
PANTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week launched a multi-year study to examine how much conservation projects are improving water quality in two Addison County watersheds.
The project, funded at $2 million through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Effects Easement Project (CEAP), will examine the Dead Creek Watershed and the Headwaters of Little Otter Creek. NRCS will, in partnership with the University of Vermont Extension, temporarily accelerate and enhance on-farm conservation practices in the Dead Creek Basin but not in the Headwaters of the Little Otter Creek. Then, the study will compare the two basins using a series of new gages planted in both basins (many at existing United States Geological Service gaging stations), that measure both flow and water quality.
Of the $2 million appropriated, $500,000 will be spent on the Dead Creek and Little Otter Creek projects, and the rest elsewhere.
Over the course of the study, UVM will oversee regular collection of water samples, which will be tested for phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment.
Two officials in charge of the study told the Independent that CEAP funding will ramp up existing outreach to farmers, implement “watershed-scale assessment,” enact conservation planning and offer financial assistance through existing NRCS conservation programs and new projects. All agricultural producers in the Dead Creek Watershed will be eligible to participate in an effort to reduce runoff of nutrients and sediment from their land, according to Lisa Duriancik, CEAP Watershed Assessment Studies Component Leader for the NRCS and, Joshua Faulkner, the Vermont CEAP Project Director for the UVM Extension.
NRCS launched CEAP in 2003 to quantify the degree to which farmers’ voluntary efforts to improve water quality and protect natural resources on their land are effective. The program focuses particularly on practices like cover-cropping, and installing riparian buffers near streams. Currently, the program is supporting 23 research projects across the United States in 51 watersheds. This is the first CEAP study in Vermont, and some local regulators hope it will help their agencies quantify the degree to which required and voluntary farm conservation practices contribute to cleaner water and the production of other beneficial ecosystem services in Vermont.
According to the project’s leaders, new and innovative means of reducing phosphorous production and trapping it, along with sediment, will be studied, They will also size up sustainable farming practices that NRCS currently recommends and helps Vermont farmers take on.
Why Study THESE Creeks Now?
The Dead Creek and Headwaters of the Little Otter Creek were selected based on their proximity, similar soils, similar annual rainfall patterns and the high density of agricultural land they contain.
“It was also very important to have existing relationships with the farmers operating in the watersheds and to know that they were interested in advancing conservation,” said Faulkner and Duriancik in an email this week.
The Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition has long been a strong advocate for this sort of research, even presenting before the state legislature on the topic in January 2018. At that time, the coalition, along with the Franklin-Grand Isle Farmer’s Watershed Alliance and the Connecticut River Watershed Farmers Alliance, requested funding for a pilot project that would have installed technology on six “host” farms to monitor, among other watershed functions, reductions in excess nutrients with the goal of quantifying the “ecosystem services” on-farm conservation practices provide.
In spring 2019, NRCS State Conservationist Vicky Drew hosted a water quality meeting among scientists and partners across the Lake Champlain Basin regarding the existing scientific research around phosphorous, its contributions to Vermont’s water quality woes and what can be done to address them. The group decided to request funding for a CEAP Watershed Assessment Study in the Lake Champlain Basin to study the efficacy of conservation practices that are believed to reduce phosphorous and sediment runoff on both a watershed-wide and field-to-field scale.
“Having this important work occurring in Vermont will ensure that conservation information and recommendations that policymakers, agricultural service providers and farmers use are tailored specifically to our farms, our soils and our climate. Results will allow us to maximize return on agricultural conservation investments and have confidence we are making the most progress possible toward protecting our natural resources and improving water quality,” wrote Duriancik and Dr. Faulkner.
The research leverages additional support from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.
“We’re really excited about this CEAP grant because this is what the farmers in the watershed have been asking for,” said Marie Audet of Bridport’s Blue Spruce Farm, a founding member of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition. “We want to drive adoption of new practices and implementation of new technology on scientifically measured outcomes. We want to know what is working, what is not, and how we can do better.”
The study will begin this fall with one full year of data collection to calibrate the project by studying the natural differences between the two watersheds. Next fall, conservation practices within the Dead Creek Watershed will be accelerated. Farmers and landowners who are interested in participating should contact the NRCS Vermont State Office by calling 802-951-6796.