Extension proposed for state assistance on ag runoff cleanup


June 13, 2006

BURLINGTON — Lake Champlain advocates say farmers' fear of fines and distrust of regulators is hindering the cleanup of Lake Champlain.

The Vermont Citizens Advisory Committee on Lake Champlain has called on state and federal regulators to exempt until 2009 farmers who come forward with their pollution problems and seek assistance to fix them.

The proposal also calls for decreasing the cost farmers must spend to clean up pollution and repairing only problems that farmers disclose and not reviewing every pollution concern on a farm.

State officials said they would consider the ideas but said they already offer farmers help.

"What farmers want is the ability to raise their hands and say, 'I have a problem,' without opening themselves up to an enforcement action. They don't want to be in the crosshairs," said Buzz Hoerr of Colchester, head of the lake committee. The committee works with the Lake Champlain Basin Program, a federally funded program.

Agricultural runoff from manure and fertilizer is a major source of phosphorus in Lake Champlain. Phosphorus leads to toxic algae blooms and plant growth in the lake.

The phosphorus enters the lake when rainwater or melting snow runs off fields covered with manure, or when manure storage areas overflow, or water leaches from milkhouses or from silage storage into streams.

"When farmers know they have a problem, they want to fix it," said Georgia dairy farmer Jason Bur. He helped found the Farmers Watershed Alliance to address pollution problems.

The cost of cleanup solutions deters some farms who are now faced with declining milk prices and the rising costs of fuel and fertilizer, he said.

A distrust of regulator also discourages farmers from disclosing their problems, said Roger Rainville of Alburgh, who also helped start the Farmers Watershed Alliance.

The volunteer group Friends of Missisquoi Bay is working to reduce the amount of phosphorus that has caused toxic algae blooms in northern parts of the lake."Instead of spending all the money on expanding manure storage, we ought to go after significant problems that farmers themselves can identify and that are not as expensive to solve but are serious water-quality problems," said Pixley Hill of St. Albans.

"We need to focus on what we can do in the next six to 36 months to really make a difference — we need a kind of little Marshall Plan for the lake," she said.