2.13.2015 – Water Quality and Funding Sources

This week the vast majority of our time was spent on H.35, the Water Quality Bill – you might say we are immersed in it! While we won’t formally take possession of the bill until next week, our time is limited to finalize it so we are working on the most recent drafts coming from the House Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee and accommodating any changes as they are made. Typically, we would wait until the bill was finished but given its enormity and importance, as well as the time crunch, we started work on it several weeks ago.

Some of the testimony has been fascinating. My major in college was oceanography and many of the concepts that we have been discussing have brought back memories of those college courses.

One of the most badly affected areas of Lake Champlain is Missisquoi Bay. It is relatively shallow with an average depth of 4 meters or a little more than 12 feet. If you look at a map of lake, it is the northeastern “thumb” of the water body. One fact that people don’t always realize is that the water in the lake flows north into Quebec so nutrient pollutants, such as phosphorus, head in that direction. It is also on the eastern side of the lake so the prevailing westerly winds tend to drive water to the east. Light is able to penetrate to most of its depth and the wave action in its relatively shallow water increases turbidity, or cloudiness – both factors, as a result, cause warming to occur more readily. Phosphorus that has accumulated in the sediment on the bottom gets into the water as the heating increases. All of this makes for a perfect storm of conditions for blue green algae blooms.

We have been hearing for several years about the horrific conditions caused by blue algae. The water is coated with a thick layer of green goo that has a disgusting smell, is extremely unhealthy and, in fact, has caused death in people’s pets. Businesses that cater to tourists and vacationers have been drastically affected and, unfortunately, this year the bloom lasted until November.

Our first goal is to keep nutrients from getting to the lake. While there is plenty of phosphorus in the lake bottom already, it is imperative to stop continued nutrient runoff. H.35 calls for a revision by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) of the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs) and an outreach effort to educate small farmers regarding the AAP requirements. It also calls for the certification of small farms just as medium and large farms are permitted. There will be a prioritization by the AAFM so that small farms in the critical source areas will potentially be looked at first. Money from federal and state sources will be available to help farmers implement Best Management Practices (BMPs), which are capital improvements such as tile drainage to improve water quality. Other practices such as strip cropping, grassed waterways, buffer zones, manure injection/aeration, no-till planting, and cover cropping will be encouraged as additional strategies to reduce nutrient runoff.

One farm that is setting a high standard is Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport. Marie Audet and her extended family are displaying great stewardship by putting into practice some time-honored and innovative practices. If you want to see a farm doing things the right way, check out the video about Blue Spruce Farm at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDA77yFEYAs.

Some, more innovative, ideas are being suggested, as well. Floating islands on which crops are grown would “harvest” phosphorus from the lake. This would also cut down on light penetration, which warms the lake. Another idea is to locate centralized anaerobic digesters to which manure would be trucked that could generate energy.

It is estimated the AAFM will need seven additional positions to certify small farms, engineer the solutions, do the mapping, and manage the grants that will hopefully be available to farmers to implement pollution abating strategies. The question is how to fund these positions? As we considered proposals, our committee established several guidelines against which to test all proposals including fairness, reliability, sustainability, nexus to the problem, and ease of administration. The Administration proposed a fertilizer fee of $30 per ton that is easy to administer but we found it unfair because it would hit the medium and large farms the hardest and they are already permitted and following Nutrient Management Plans for which they pay a lot of money.

We are considering several other revenue sources including a per acre/parcel charge, a water extraction/capture fee, and an additional 1% on the Rooms Tax. The benefit of the Rooms Tax proposal is that it would cover the $1.2 million needed for the AAFM positions as well as fully fund the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, the Vermont Agricultural Fairs capital grants and stipends, and the Farm to School Program all of which have been severely cut or zeroed out. Additionally, the $750,000 for tourism mentioned in the governor’s budget speech would be covered. The Rooms Tax proposal meets our test guidelines and would allow people who come to Vermont to enjoy our lakes and the beauty of our working landscape, the opportunity to contribute to the cleanup Lake Champlain and the vitality of our working lands.

When faced with challenges, I like to think of them as opportunities. The Water Quality Bill offers an abundance of both.