By Rebekah Weber and Elena Mihaly
When people think of Vermont, they often conjure up lush green pastures speckled with cows and an iconic red barn. Indeed, this bucolic landscape spans much of the state and we’re proud of it. The agriculture sector brings enormous benefits to our community (award-winning cheeses, sweet corn, and your favorite variety of kale).
But those same verdant fields that feed our bellies also feed our state waterways a significant dose of runoff laden with nutrients like phosphorus. Unfortunately, these nutrients pose significant problems for water quality in Vermont by causing toxic outbreaks of blue-green algae in Lake Champlain.
Farms and Nutrient Pollution
Nutrients from farm fields enter our lakes and streams through a variety of activities. When farmers spread manure on their fields, not all of that manure is absorbed into the soil and some can wash off during rainstorms. Similarly, when farmers pile up manure for later use, the concentrated stack can leach nutrients as rainwater flows over the pile.
Another way that excess nutrients enter our waters is when livestock roam freely in waterways, “relieving themselves” directly into streams and eroding nutrient-rich soils from stream banks. And these are just a few of the ways that farm practices can impact nutrient runoff and water quality.
Better Farm Management Practices Can Help
It doesn’t have to be this way. Many farming practices can help to prevent nutrient runoff instead of causing it, and numerous conscientious farmers across the state already use these practices. But as Lake Champlain becomes more and more polluted by phosphorus, it is time for all farmers to abide by the best agriculture practices that will reduce their contribution to the problem. That’s why the Vermont General Assembly passed a law called the Vermont Clean Water Act last session directing the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to revise and strengthen Vermont’s agricultural practice standards.
The Agency released a second draft of these so-called Required Agricultural Practices, or “RAPs,” on February 23. These draft rules lay the foundation to better regulate farm practices near waterways.
Good, but Not Good Enough
The draft RAPs do require some new best practices to improve water quality issues; however, the RAPs must go further to meet the intent of the legislature and to prevent further pollution of our treasured water bodies. CLF has several core concerns about the RAPs as they are currently drafted (see our complete comment letter here):
- The proposed RAPs actually narrow (rather than broaden) the number of farms that must comply with the standard state agricultural practices. The old agricultural practices applied to all “farm operators,” regardless of the number of livestock raised. Now, the draft RAPs propose a floor below which farmers need not comply with the required practices. For example, a farmer managing any number of cattle on three acres of land would not have to follow any nutrient management plan to avoid runoff from their property – even if they had more cattle than a farmer raising their stock on more acres.
- The proposed RAPs are too soft on managing gully erosion. The rules merely require “minimization,” rather than prevention, of eroding farm ditches. Erosive gullies are an enormous problem because they are direct conduits of nutrient and sediment-filled runoff into nearby waterways. The farmer’s obligation should be to prevent these altogether.
- The proposed RAPs are too lax with requirements to plant cover crops in frequently flooded areas adjacent to surface waters. Planting cover crops such as rye or vetch can dramatically decrease surface runoff of nutrients because they absorb the runoff before it can reach our waterways. As the RAPs are written, a farmer need only plant cover crops in frequently flooded areas “as soil, weather conditions, and generally accepted agronomic practices allow.” This language is so loose that farmers can easily find a way around it and be off the hook for this important requirement.
- The proposed requirements for buffers aren’t adequate and they’re not based on sound science. One way to reduce nutrient pollution from farming is to create buffers between farm fields and any waterway passing through the farm. The state law authorizing the RAPs sets minimum widths for these buffers, but the law also gave the Agency the authority to increase that width so that buffers “adequately address water quality needs on a site-specific basis.” The proposed RAPs suggest that only these minimum requirements be applied to every farm, regardless of whether that minimum will adequately address water quality issues at a site. As written, famers are also allowed to apply fertilizer on buffers, which would turn them into a phosphorus source rather than a sink.
- Finally, the proposed RAPs allow livestock to have access to waterways – even though the law says to prohibit such access. The law authorizing these RAPs clearly compels the Agency to “[e]stablish standards for the exclusion of livestock from the waters of the State to prevent erosion and adverse water quality impacts.” The Agency should be permitted to grant limited exemptions, but a strict standard making waters off limits to livestock needs to be in place.
Farms Aren’t the Only Reason There’s a Problem, But They’re a Big Part of It
Farms are hardly the only contributor to nutrient runoff into our state waterways. Phosphorus (one of the most detrimental nutrients in terms of water quality) enters waterbodies through stormwater runoff from developed lands (think streets, parking lots, and roofs), wastewater treatment facility discharges, runoff from unpaved back roads, and in-stream erosion. (For a full breakdown of phosphorus contribution to Lake Champlain, see excellent graphics here.)
All of these sectors are facing new regulations to tackle water quality issues. But, agriculture represents the single largest contributor of phosphorus from the Lake Champlain Basin (a whopping 41 percent). So it’s vitally important that these Required Agricultural Practices apply to all farms and set robust standards with only minimal opportunities for exemptions.
CLF is continuing to engage with the Agency and the legislature to strengthen the RAPs and fight for clean water in Vermont. Farming is critical to our culture, economy, and way of life, but agriculture and clean water do not have to be in conflict. Keep following to learn more about CLF’s role in improving water quality in Vermont.