U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (center) was joined by Sen. Patrick Leahy (right) and other officials at a news conference Thursday at ECHO Lake
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (center) was joined by Sen. Patrick Leahy (right) and other officials at a news conference Thursday at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington. (Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger)

BURLINGTON -- Vermont farmers will get a boost from the federal government to help restore Lake Champlain's water quality.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced Thursday a $45 million program available to farmers who adopt conservation practices intended to prevent nutrient runoff into the state's waterways.

Manure and fertilizer runoff from farms is the leading cause of phosphorous pollution in Lake Champlain. The phosphorus is linked to toxic summer algae blooms, which state officials now say poses a risk to public drinking water supplies.

"This is the sixth-largest freshwater body in the country. And there's no question it needs help," Vilsack said at a news conference Thursday outside the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center on Burlington's waterfront. State and federal officials, farmers, lake advocates and scientists attended the event.

He said farmers are committed to improving Vermont's soil and water quality. He said the "historic investment," which was part of the reauthorization of the five-year Farm Bill, provides farmers with the tools and resources to do so.

The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service will administer the money for projects in Missisquoi Bay, St. Albans Bay and South Lake Watersheds - areas surrounding Lake Champlain where blue-green algae blooms are most frequent.

Over the past decade, the USDA invested $46 million in similar programs in Vermont. Vilsack said the federal money must now be rolled out to farmers faster.


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He said the new conservation money will flow to farmers over the next five years.

The money will be used to provide farmers with the technical assistance to develop new farming practices, including cover cropping, different tillage systems, planting vegetative buffers between fields and waterways, and other fertilizer management practices designed to keep nutrients on fields. Vilsack said USDA is committed to keeping six NRCS conservationists on the ground in Vermont to assist farmers.

He said before September, USDA will provide farmers an additional $1 million to plant cover crops and develop livestock conservation practices. Cover crops are used to reduce soil and nutrient runoff and erosion between crop rotations when fields typically lay bear.

Bill Howard is the manager for the Lake Champlain Basin Program, an organization that works with state governments and federal agencies to fund water quality programs in the lake's watershed. He said the organization will follow the money and fill in gaps with its own funding.

He said farmers should not fear enforcement. He said the money will provide farmers with the much-needed resources change their practices. Howard said many farmers have already set conservation models for others.

"Farmers are the boots on the ground. They have the experience. They know their farming practices so well they find ways to solve problems," Howard said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Vermont is a small state with high-profile water quality issues: algae blooms, sea lamprey and the invasive spiny water flea.

"All of these things, it is a constant, constant battle. There is no silver bullet," he said. "We have a great treasure here. I call it a 'great big beautiful lake,'" he said.

Lake Champlain TMDL

The Environmental Protection Agency is drafting a plan for the state to reduce phosphorus loading into Lake Champlain. The Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, is a plan intended to cut phosphorus in Lake Champlain by 36 percent.

The plan looks to farms, forests, cities, roads and wastewater treatment facilities as areas where phosphorus reduction can be made. The EPA will outline a plan for the state by fall. The state has not announced a funding proposal for the plan but intends to do so this year.

Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross said the USDA funding will help the state comply with EPA regulations. The state is required to meet the phosphorous reduction standards set by the TMDL under the federal Clean Water Act.

"These are the kind of resources that will breathe life into the TMDL plan," Ross said.

The Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental law firm that forced the state to adopt a stricter TMDL, filed a petition to the Agency of Agriculture last spring requesting mandatory farming practices it says would reduce phosphorus runoff into Missisquoi Bay.

The public comment period on the petition is closed. Ross said the state is deciding what action to take and declined to set a date for the decision.

Nonetheless, he said as part of the state's TMDL proposal, the state will consider adopting new rules as part of the its Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAP), which are enforced on a complaint basis. The rules include vegetated buffer strips between crop lands and waters, livestock exclusion from waterways and feed storage standards.

Vilsack said mandatory agricultural practices may not be necessary.

"We've found at the USDA that voluntary conservation is particularly effective with agricultural interests. We've seen an enormous increase in activity in conservation in the last four or five years because we've taken this voluntary approach," he said.

He said there are about 400 million acres of farmland in conservation and about 500,000 producers engaged in conservation.

State Begins Short-Term Water Quality Effort

Ross said the agencies of Natural Resources and Agriculture will intensify water quality improvement efforts in Franklin County this summer.

He said this short-term effort is a response to heightened concerns over blue-green algae blooms in the northern section of Lake Champlain. According to the health department, there are more than a dozen areas in the lake under high alert for algae blooms.

The effort includes educating farmers on agricultural practices, inspecting farms and enforcing the state's water quality regulations for agricultural practices included in the AAPs.