Op - Ed
September 18, 2015

Agriculture takes the RAP for Lake Champlain cleanup

By Julia Purdy

On Thursday, Aug. 27, a public information meeting was held at the Fox Room in the Rutland Free Library, for the purpose of bringing to Vermonters the message of Vermont’s new Clean Water Act, Act 64, also known as H. 35.

The panel consisted of a full-court press of key State of Vermont department and agency representatives: Agency of Transportation (VTrans), Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (AAFM), and the Dept. of Environmental Conservation. With them was Stephen Perkins, project manager with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The panelists clearly were attempting to put a good face on what is probably the most draconian campaign to cleanse surface waters this state has ever seen.

The audience nearly filled available seating in the Fox Room. The mood swung between the smiles and head-noddings of government staffers and other backers of the plan and the sober faces of those who stoically absorbed the information.

In introducing the panel, Chuck Ross, AAFM secretary, referenced in passing the “spirited” sessions at other public information meetings and requested that the group remain civil.

Clearly, public input was to be in the form of public listening, as the message was already packaged and the plan irrevocable. The purpose was to outline the expectations that will be placed on Vermont communities, businesses and landowners in the quest to save Lake Champlain (and other state waterways).

Deb Markowitz, ANR secretary, opened with a big smile and a big pitch to bring everyone on board with the current phase of the Lake Champlain cleanup project. She cited the millions of dollars that have been invested so far—the “work of generations,” as she put it. Vermont’s future “prosperity” is “closely tied to the cleanliness of the lake,” she said, and it is “necessary for us as Vermonters” to address the threat of polluted water for the sake of “our children and grandchildren.”

Markowitz praised the EPA as a “tremendous partner” in this endeavor. She cited the all-new aspect of the programme—new regulations, new funding sources, a new spirit of collaboration across agencies within Vermont to get the job done, and new methods of enforcement.

Ross followed Markowitz with the usual talking points about the desirability of cleaning up Lake Champlain. Among them were the amenities of being able to swim in its waters and the effect on the market value of lakefront residential properties. Saying that he has been a farmer in the Basin, he cited his “personal connection” with the lake and his belief that the condition of Lake Champlain pervades all economic functions and everyday activities throughout Vermont. Therefore, he said, we all need to be “better stewards.”

Smoothly he went on to reveal the iron fist in the velvet glove: referencing “a few bad apples,” he drove home the point that “personal accountability will be enforced in ways we have not seen before.”

The VTrans representative introduced that agency as playing an active role in planning at the senior staff level in reference to roadways, runoff, and stormwater “at all levels.” She admitted that VTrans was stepping into a new role as “proactive stewards.”

Stephen Perkins, EPA-Boston office, whose job it is to monitor Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) levels of phosphorus entering the lake waters via surface drainage, described the new regulations as “tailored to Vermont.” Using slides, Perkins described the computer modeling that has divided Lake Champlain into 12 segments. A color-coded plan of the lake showed the “worst areas” of phosphorus pollution—colored dark brown—to be the “South Lake B” segment and Missisquoi Bay.

South Lake B contains the Otter Creek watershed.

Pie charts illustrated the relative contributions to lake pollution, based on computer modeling. By far the largest source is shown as agriculture. The second largest source is stream banks. Other sources include wastewater, stormwater runoff from “impervious surfaces” (pavement, from parking lots to residential driveways), all roads including unpaved back roads, stream corridors, and forest lands.

In all 12 segments of the map, agriculture takes the brunt of the reduction requirement, at 80 percent. In South Lake B, the TMDL from forests and agriculture must be reduced by 60 percent each. Stream-generated TMDL must be reduced by 30 percent.

Perkins made little attempt to be affable. He stated there would be “rigorous tracking.” The role of the EPA is to monitor TMDL reduction, to “keep score,” and to enforce accountability. He expressed optimism that Vermont “will perform.”

Again, he emphasized that agriculture will bear the brunt of the cleanup burden. Enforcement will be “immediately aggressive” in certain parts of the state, Perkins said. Previously accepted practices have been replaced by “Required Agricultural Practices,” or RAPS, which demand a higher level of performance. The new regulations apply to agriculture from “backyard farmers” to large farms handling hundreds of cattle. The large farms must certify compliance by July 2016—one year from now.

Areas of enforcement will include field erosion, manure storage near water, nutrient management planning, buffer zones alongside streams, fencing, and setbacks for manure spreading or “stacks”—not only away from streams but also away from roadways and property lines where neighbors and tourists might complain.

The carrot is the assistance from the state and the EPA to help farmers with compliance, the paperwork, and some financial help. For dirt roads, local roads, “small grants” are available; a flyer on the back table listed Clean Water State Revolving Fund loans that are available to municipalities. Year-round private residences that do not currently meet standards of compliance must either pay out of pocket or take out a bank loan or, if low income, may qualify for a 15-year loan at 3 percent.

The “stick” includes penalties up to $50,000 per violation, removal of the offending property from the current use program and/or confiscation of portions of a herd to “right-size” it to conform with the new TMDL yardstick.

And the tab for Vermont taxpayers and communities, overall? When questioned, the panel admitted there are “no hard figures” on the total cost. It was stated as an example that wastewater upgrades would cost communities $78 million per facility, in some circumstances.

According to Alyssa Schuren, commissioner of the Dept. of Environmental Conservation, “H.35 raises approximately $7.4 million in new revenue for FY’16.” Virtually all of that revenue is generated by fees and distributed as follows:

[bullets]

To the new Clean Water Fund: $5.2 million from a new 0.2 percent surcharge on the property transfer tax, after the first $100,000 of purchase price

To the Dept. of Environmental Conservation: $1.54 million in regulatory fees for the creation of 13 new positions

To the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets: $621,000 in fees + $450,000 from the Clean Water Fund to create 8 water quality positions + $250,000 “in programmatic work in FY’16.” (Schuren)

Fees to be levied on farming operations by the AAFM are as follows:

 

  • $2,500 annual fee for “Large Farm Operations”
  • $1,500 annual fee for “Medium Farm Operations”
  • $30 increase to the tonnage fee on non-agricultural fertilizers
  • Increase from $110 to $125 the annual registration fee for pesticides

The panel members all expressed great optimism in the new cleanup plan. It was stated by one of the panelists that “For all those who own property [on the lake] right now and are living with colored water, it’s a tremendous lift.”

As a final ironic footnote, the “2015 State of the Lake Report,” published by the Lake Champlain Basin Program steering committee and which was available on a table in the back of the room, reports that “it is important to know that 85 percent of Lake Champlain’s water is consistently of excellent quality and another 13 percent of the water is in usually good condition. In the remaining 2 percent of the Lake, conditions are seasonally alarming.”

In particular, blue-green algae is a summertime problem, and the water in the South Lake “tends to be muddy.” These particular facts were not included in the Lake Champlain cleanup pitch at the meeting.

So what is driving the drive to achieve nearly pristine waters in Lake Champlain?

Stephen Perkins from the EPA referenced a “lawsuit that propelled us down this road.” He stated that the suit had been brought by the Conservation Law Foundation and had resulted in a settlement that, in turn, has dictated the goals of the program. This writer was unable to find the specific citation before press time, but the EPA website, cfpub.epa.gov/enforcement/cases provides a lengthy list of actions brought against violators, from megacorporations to municipalities to dairy farms for anything from criminal acts to inadequate stormwater management.

The historical events and lawsuits that lead to us passing the most draconian campaign to cleanse surface waters this state has ever seen is a story for another time.

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