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Farmers reduce Bay pollution

NRCS, UVM target resources

By MICHELLE MONROE

Messenger Staff

ST. ALBANS — Farmers in the St. Albans Bay watershed reduced phosphorous runoff by 3,000 pounds in 2016, according to estimates from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

The majority of the reductions came from reducing tillage (just shy of 1,200 pounds) and using cover crops (1,100 pounds).

The estimates are based on modeling done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when it crafted a new pollution reduction plan, or TMDL, for Lake Champlain.

NRCS plans to reach a 7,000-pound reduction by 2020, that’s 87 percent of the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) target for reductions from agricultural lands, explained Vicky Drew, Vermont’s NRCS director.

In 2014, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) received $45 million in funding to spend over five years on clean water initiatives in Vermont.

Drew and her team decided to work with the state, UVM Extension Service and grassroots groups such as the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain and the Farmers Watershed Alliance to target half of those funds to particular watersheds.

Four watersheds were selected: St. Albans Bay, the Pike River, the Rock River and McKenzie Brook in Addison County.

For each watershed, a committee was formed to decide on appropriate goals. Highly detailed plans identifying land use, wetlands, steep slopes, and likely sources of nutrient runoff were identified.

NRCS Water Quality Specialist Kip Potter said the UVM Extension Service spoke with every one of the 50 farmers in the bay watershed. Partnerships

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GEORGE OUELLETTE, Georgeouellettephotography.com

Scenic overviews of St. Albans Bay.

Messenger File Photos


were essential, according to Drew. “I don’t have the capacity on my staff to say ‘just work here.’” “There’s a lot of publicity about the St. Albans Bay watershed,” Potter said, adding that farmers are likely feeling the pressure to make changes as a result.

In the bay watershed, NRCS has 26 Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contracts, said Drew, covering 4,795 acres.

EQIP provides financial assistance to farms adopting practices with an environmental benefit, ranging from cover crops to fencing livestock out of streams.

Seeing other farmers successfully implement practices makes those practices seem doable, said Drew. That’s especially true when farmers see a benefit such as better yields or less need for fertilizer, added Potter.

Practices with such farm benefits are more likely to be adopted, he noted.

The combination of cover crops and reduced tillage “can dramatically improve soil health over time,” said Drew. Healthier soil leads to better yields.

“You restore an actual living ecosystem,” said Potter.

Healthier soils are better at absorbing and retaining water, preventing runoff and keeping nutrients in the fields.

A shift in attitudes about those practices has been particularly pronounced in McKenzie Brook. “We’ve turned the corner in that watershed,” said Drew. “If you’re not doing reduced tillage, cover crops or manure injection, you’re not farming right.”

That attitude change may be the biggest challenge. It’s been slow to come in the Pike and Rock watersheds, Drew and Potter indicated, with a couple of noted exceptions.

In both the Pike and Rock watersheds, NRCS fell short of its phosphorous reduction goals for 2016.

In the Rock River watershed, NRCS estimates a reduction of around 1,350 pounds of phosphorous, roughly 100 pounds shy of its goal for 2016.

In the Pike watershed, reductions totaled around 1,200 pounds of phosphorous, while NRCS was shooting for more than 1,400 pounds. Both rivers are part of the Missisquoi Bay watershed, which has the highest reduction targets of any section of Lake Champlain.

NRCS hopes to organize more field and demonstration days there to show farmers the benefits of focusing on soil quality, explained Drew. One such event was held last week on Tim Magnant’s farm. Many of the farms in those watersheds are also smaller, with less capacity for making investments in equipment.

Potter said he expects the new Required Agricultural Practices from the state will help. In both watersheds, the use of nutrient management plans were a significant source of reductions. Those plans are now required for all farms in the state.

Overall, Drew considers the targeted approach promising, and plans to expand it to Hungerford Brook with planning next year and targeted funding in 2019.

“It was an experiment to see if we could reach our goals more quickly,” she said. “It takes willing farmers. It takes great partners.”

Potter cautioned that even with the reductions, “we could still see significant algae blooms,” in St. Albans Bay.

The bay has an accumulation of phosphorous on the bottom, and EPA has asked Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources to come up with a plan to address that historic accumulation once the current flow of nutrients into the bay has been sufficiently reduced.

Although agriculture is a significant source of phosphorous in the bay, it is not the only one. Stream bank erosion is also a major source, according to EPA. That erosion is the direct result of stormwater from impervious sources such as roads and buildings being fed into Stevens and Rugg brooks which have their own TMDLs targeting excess water.

Across the Lake Champlain basin, wastewater treatment facilities are a relatively small source of phosphorous the EPA found, but in St. Albans Bay, the EPA instructed the state to cut the permissible amount of phosphorous from the city’s plant in half. The plant was contributing about half of its permitted amount.

Now the city is in the midst of an $18 million upgrade of its facility which includes a nearly $3 million investment in improved phosphorous removal. Once installed, the new equipment will reduce the amount of phosphorous from the facility to 0.1 milligrams per liter, half of the amount sought by EPA.

Courtesy of NRCS

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