State News

Approval of farm drainage rules postponed amid environmental groups’ concerns

By Elizabeth Gribkoff/VTDIgger

A legislative committee decided Thursday to postpone a vote on amending farm water quality rules following objections from environmental advocates.

In a Sep. 18 letter to the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Lake Champlain Committee said that proposed amendments do not do enough to reduce phosphorus runoff from farm field drains.

Rebekah Weber, Lake Champlain lakekeeper for CLF, said Sept. 20 in a legislative hearing that the groups wanted the committee to object to the proposal because it is “contrary to the legislative intent” of a new water quality law. They also believe full implementation of the new rule would not be possible, because farmers are not always sure where the drains are located.

However, Laura DiPietro, director of the water quality division of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, urged lawmakers to adopt the rule, arguing that it is an improvement of water quality practices.

“We feel like there’s stuff in here that is good, and not to have this would not be helpful going forward,” she said.
Vermont’s Clean Water Act, Act 64, required the state’s agriculture agency to update existing on-farm water quality practices in 2016 into a new set of rules called “required agricultural practices (RAPs).” AAFM was also required, by January of 2018, to add sections to the rules to reduce runoff of phosphorus and other nutrients from water flowing out of tile drains.

Tile drains are systems of pipes installed under crop fields to quickly drain wet fields. While tile drains, installed since the 1800s, have helped farmers grow crops in fields that otherwise would have been too soggy to use, scientists now know that the drains can provide another path for nutrient laden water to make its way into nearby water bodies. The impact of tile drains on water quality varies and relates to whether a field has high phosphorus levels from manure or other fertilizers.

A joint report from AAFM and ANR states that tile drains “can be a significant contributor to the overall phosphorus load in heavily agricultural watersheds.” Excess phosphorus is the main cause of the cyanobacteria blooms that have plagued Lake Carmi and parts of Lake Champlain, leading to the EPA mandates that the surrounding watersheds lower phosphorus pollution coming into the lakes.

Weber argued during the committee meeting that the agency’s rules did not adequately address the charge that tile drains reduce nutrient loading within the overarching context of the state’s Clean Water Act, which requires that farms have no “adverse impacts” on water quality. She pointed to the continued allowance of “surface inlets” in the new tile drain rules as an example of that.

Surface inlets are pipes that lead directly from the top layer of a field to an outlet pipe. Weber referenced a letter sent by ANR Secretary Julie Moore to AAFM Secretary Anson Tebbetts this April that refers to surface inlets as a “direct discharge of waste to a surface water.”

“And what we articulate is that in no way, shape or form can you continue to have a direct discharge and, at the same time, eliminate adverse impacts to water quality,” said Weber in the committee meeting.

DiPietro responded that eliminating old surface inlets was impractical and unsafe.

“The old systems were never designed thinking about pulling them out one day, and infrastructure and other things have been built around those items,” said DiPietro. “So making just a blanket statement to say ‘eliminate or remove,’ the impact of that could be dire in some instances, causing flooding or other challenges to (nearby) homes.”

DiPietro added that her division will “continue to work on this issue,” noting that farmers are now prohibited from installing new surface inlets in fields.

Julie Moore, secretary of ANR, said in an interview Friday that her agency still considers existing surface inlets to be direct pollution sources that must be addressed. She noted that while tile drains are installed underground, meaning water can deposit nutrients in the soil as it trickles down, surface inlet pipes provide “conduits” for applied manure to flow untreated directly from fields into streams or other water bodies.

“So if you bypass all the soil, you could end up with, in essence, raw manure running out the end of the pipe,” said Moore, describing the water quality challenge posed by surface inlets.

Another criticism levied by Weber against the proposed rules was that the rule is “unenforceable” without a mapping requirement, because farmers do not always know where all tile drains on their property are.

“If you don’t know whether you have subsurface tile drainage, how can you be expected to not site something over it?” asked Weber, referring to the new requirement that concentrated feeding areas cannot be built over tile drains. “Is that reasonable?”

DiPietro responded that while a farmer may not know where all tile drains are on their property, they would be required to do a site assessment, including finding tile drains, before installing anything that has a minimum required distance from a drain. To find tile drains requires looking at aerial maps of property, but could also entail using radar and smoke testing to find exact locations, she said.

“The cost is definitely prohibitive if we were really going to the Nth degree to find every line” on a farm, said DiPietro.Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, motioned to postpone the vote, saying the committee needs to do further legal and technical review. The rule will be brought up again Oct. 18.

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