Aug. 28 2015
State and federal officials this week told farmers in Missisquoi Bay’s watershed that they’d be responsible for cutting their phosphorus effluence into Lake Champlain by more than 80 percent.
More than 100 people gathered Wednesday evening in the St. Albans Historical Society headquarters to hear officials detail new standards for phosphorous pollution and the state’s plan for implementing them.
Meeting these targets won’t be easy, even with monies newly made available through recent clean-water legislation, officials said.
Phosphorus is a nutrient found in agricultural runoff, and is a product of fertilizers such as manure. Other sources include dirt roads, waste water treatment plants, insufficiently treated stormwater, and even forested land.
Phosphorus introduced into Lake Champlain has resulted in toxic algae blooms, among other undesirable environmental effects. The blooms have led public health officials to close beaches and monitor drinking water contamination from algae toxins. Tourism in the Missisquoi Bay area has been negatively impacted and property tax values have dropped in the town of Georgia.
Chuck Ross, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said Wednesday that no one group is responsible for the pollution.
“If you’re going to look simply to the state of Vermont, and our agencies that are in place, you’re not looking far enough, because this is a problem we’re all going to have to face,” Ross said.
But farmers in the Missisquoi Bay watershed will be hit especially hard by the new pollution limits. They’ll be expected to reduce their contribution to the lake’s phosphorus levels by 82.6 percent, according to figures from the EPA.
Of the 12 areas of the lake that have been impacted by the pollution, Missisquoi Bay must undergo the greatest rate of improvement. The bay is in the middle of the state’s largest and most prosperous conventional dairy farming community.
Stephen Perkins, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lake Champlain TMDL Project Manager, says the new standards establish a pollution limit, known as the total maximum daily load, for phosphorus laden runoff draining into Lake Champlain.
“No question, the biggest reduction has to happen in Missisquoi Bay,” Perkins said. “We recognize it’s a big ask here.”
Farmers who have already sought to implement water-quality measures may find that the new standards don’t impose much additional burden, Ross said.
But farmers who say they are complying with state requirements are frustrated by shifting goalposts.
“My concern is, they keep changing [standards] on us,” Dick Longway, owner of Longway Farms in Swanton, said. “They keep adding stuff to it, and it’s taking land out of production.”
Longway, whose farm in 2010 was recognized as the Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year, said he and many other farmers have been following water-quality best practices for years, and he’s frustrated that they don’t appear to have any effect.
“People are doing all this stuff, and they say it’s getting worse, or it’s not getting better,” Longway said. “And then you have the state coming in, and telling us, ‘you’re going to do this, this and this,’ you know … Once in a while, I’d like to have somebody say farmers are doing a good job.”
Bringing Lake Champlain into compliance with EPA water quality standards could take 20 years, Perkins said.
Meeting the new standards won’t be cheap, either, Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, told a crowd of about 100 gathered in Burlington Thursday morning for a meeting similar to that held in St. Albans the night before.
“For farmers, it’s going to cost you more in your operation to have the farm you want, and keep your water clean,” she said.
An unprecedented amount of money has been allocated for the effort ‑ $10 million has already been set aside from a real estate transfer tax into the state’s Clean Water Fund, and the federal government has awarded $60 million in grants for the same purpose to the department of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Markowitz said.
Alburgh farmer Darlene Reynolds said the additional costs associated with meeting the new standards will push some farmers out of business.
“I still have to cough up a considerable amount of money out of my pocket for water quality,” she said. “I think farmers are more and more coming to that realization. Depending on how hard the regulations hit them, it is going to drive some farmers out of business.”
Reynolds said many of the farmers in her part of the state have been adapting to shifting cultural expectations.
Some say, however, that Vermont has set expectations too high.
The pollution limits set by the EPA in Vermont’s TMDL program are “contrived to meet unrealistic goals,” Mark Winslow, staff scientist of the Lake Champlain Committee, said.
“In particular, look at the reductions from Missisquoi Bay,” he said. “That’s just unrealistic. Maybe if you eliminated 70 to 75 percent of the farms – maybe.”
Addison farmer Mark Boivin said these concerns should lead the state and the EPA to extend the comment period for the TMDL program from one month – of which 10 days have already elapsed – to six months.
“The state took several years with people working full-time, with paid staff, to come up with these regulations, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to give the public a longer period [than one month] to respond,” Boivin said.
Farmers want to practice methods that don’t harm waterbodies, Boivin said, but it’s important to balance water quality goals with what farmers are able to achieve.
“If they put a burden [that is] too great on farms, and they have to go out of business and sell to developers, I think that’s going to be a negative on the lake,” he said. “There needs to be a balance, and that’s why the key is to have more communication between regulators and the people being regulated.”
The 30-day comment period on Lake Champlain’s new phosphorus TMDLs began Aug. 14 and will continue until Sept. 15.
The TMDL outreach effort underway this week across Vermont included meetings in St. Albans, Burlington and Rutland. Several federal and state functionaries made themselves available at these events to answer questions posed by members of the audience.
Those officials included Perkins, Markowitz and Ross, along with Vermont Agency of Transportation Deputy Secretary Chris Cole, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren and others.
The Environmental Protection Agency has required the state of Vermont to adopt limits on phosphorus pollution in order to bring Lake Champlain’s water quality into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
The EPA is currently seeking public input on a range of proposed daily phosphorus limits to be placed on segments of Lake Champlain within the state of Vermont. The agency developed these TMDLs in conjunction with Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and the state’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and released the pollution standards August 14 for public comment.
Members of the public have 30 days from that time to submit comments on the new TMDLs, and Perkins said those in writing should be submitted directly to him.
Perkins said the best way to send them is by email to his address at email@example.com.
“If you have comments, the best thing you can do is put it into writing and send them to me by September 15, said to those assembled Wednesday night in Saint Albans. “I can assure you that I will read every one of those comments, and take them under consideration.”