4.5.2019 – Water Quality Issues and the Big Bill

A month ago, I wrote an article about agriculture, soil health, wetlands permits, and the clean-up of Lake Champlain. Since then, some additional thoughts have come to mind that I’d like to share. As I said then, I think we all share the goal and responsibility of cleaning up Lake Champlain, not only because we are its stewards, but because of its value to us as a natural resource and recreation destination. Added to that is the fact that it was the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) in 2008.

The CLF brought the suit claiming that the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which was the plan that had been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2002, was inconsistent with the federal Clean Water Act. In 2011, the EPA withdrew its approval of the Vermont TMDL and between 2011 and 2015, the State of Vermont worked with the EPA to develop another TMDL, with implementation phases starting in 2014 and 2015.

Part of the implementation included the revision of the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs), which were rules that anyone with large animals needed to follow regarding, in part, the handling of manure and nutrients. Years ago, during a hearing on the subject, it was astonishing to learn that people, including those who owned horses, knew nothing about the AAPs. The revision, which overhauled the AAPs became known as the Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) – they have been in place for a little over two years.

In addition, farmers have been implementing good soil health practices. When we heard testimony from Didi Pershouse of the Soil Carbon Coalition (www.soilcarboncoalition.org/learn or www.didipershouse.com), she laid out several principles including “Keep living roots in the ground as long as possible”, “Try not to disturb those underground structures with tillage”, and “Keep soil covered year-round”. These are the low-till, no-till, and cover cropping practices used by many farmers at this point and encouraged in the Environmental Stewardship Program that we hope to codify this year.

Didi also stressed that “A diverse system is more resilient than a monoculture” and to “Use plant diversity to increase diversity in soil microorganisms, beneficial insects, and other species.” In addition, “Nature never farms without animals. Plan to integrate and welcome a diversity of animals, birds, and insects into the system.”

As farmers incorporate these principles into their practices, they build organic matter in the soil, which has multiple benefits. Additional organic matter in the soil helps create a “sponge” that can absorb more water during extreme precipitation events, which we know through scientific data have increased 74% in the period between 1958 and 2010. During times of drought, this same “sponge” holds water better and releases it slowly to improve crop resilience.

During a hearing in January, UVM Extension’s Jeff Carter, gave a presentation on Best Management Practices (BMPs) and spoke in depth about cover cropping. Cover crops help sequester carbon in the soil. Jeff’s data indicate medium to high sequestration estimates for cover crops on Vermont’s cornfields at 44,800 – 240,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This equals 9,600 – 51,200 passenger vehicles per year or a current value in the carbon market of $688,000 – $3,700,000. This value was based on the figures for Jan. 22, 2019 from California.

For the entire presentation given by UVM Extension’s Heather Darby, Joshua Faulkner, and Jeff Carter, please check out https://legislature.vermont.gov/Documents/2020/WorkGroups/House%20Agriculture/Clean%20Water%20Initiative/W~Heather%20Darby~ Understanding%20the%20Role%20that%20Farms%20and%20Farmers%20Play%20in%20the%20Water%20and%20Climate%20Conversation%20in%20Vermont~1-25-2019.pdf. It is an amazing piece of work that shows the important role that agriculture plays in the water quality, Lake Champlain clean-up, and climate change efforts in Vermont.

As we continue to look at legislation regarding wetlands permitting, I continue to be troubled by proposals that seem to increase barriers to farmers implementing BMPs and other good practices that may have been done for years. This is not to say that farmers should ride roughshod on the land, but since they are a major part of the cleanup plan for Lake Champlain, neither should they be slowed down by unreasonable requirements. If they are slowed in their attempts, so, too, will the cleanup of the lake be slowed, and I don’t think anyone, especially environmentalists, want that.

The week before last, we worked on the FY2020 Budget, or “Big Bill”. If we do nothing else during a Legislative Session, it is imperative that we pass a budget and in Vermont we always pass a balanced one.

The Chair of Appropriations, Rep. Kitty Toll of Danville, runs a very inclusive committee process that results in an excellent finished product voted out of committee unanimously. Committee members, including my district-mate, Rep. Matt Trieber, have worked primarily on the budget since the beginning of the Session. They work on Budget Adjustment and other smaller bills that require their attention, but the great bulk of the work is on the construction of the spending plan for Vermont.

It is our goal to have our values and priorities reflected in the budget that we create. As we work toward making Vermont an attractive place for people to live and potentially relocate, we look hard at the investments we can make. Current programs are reviewed and assessed to determine how much they have accomplished, how many people have been helped, and how much better off we are as a result. We also strive to honor commitments to meet our obligations and, if possible, increase our reserves to prepare for future difficult times.

As we talked to constituents during the last campaign, we heard that there is a huge need for more quality, affordable childcare. It is one of the linchpins for getting people into the workforce that also offers children an opportunity for early learning and good socialization. We invested $10.5 million in our childcare and early learning system.

An additional $3 million was appropriated for the Vermont State College System and we invested in micro-business loans for startups and in workforce development. A major investment is being made to help provide high-speed internet service to 60,000 Vermonters so that they can access broadband. House Agriculture and Forestry is extremely pleased that an additional $1.5 million is appropriated for the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative.

The House made investments in substance use disorder treatment and increased support for recovery centers. We boosted funding for home and community-based service providers and additional money is allocated to build capacity for mental health beds.

The $6.1 billion, House FY2020 budget proposal passed on a strong vote of 137-1. We focused on making investments in what works well and what will make Vermont a place that works for everyone. The bill now moves on to the Senate for their consideration.