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Robert Howrigan Junior on his Fairfax, VT dairy farm. The field behind him is prone to runoff.
Robert Howrigan Junior on his Fairfax, VT dairy farm. The field behind him is prone to runoff.

New USDA program to help VT farmers reduce phosphorus loading

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Lake Champlain's Missisquoi Bay is plagued by phosphorus pollution. When hot weather comes, the pollution feeds potentially dangerous blue-green algae blooms.

Phosphorus is a common fertilizer, and the excess causing the local problems comes primarily from agricultural runoff. An international study has helped pinpoint the sources around the big bay, which spans the Vermont-Quebec border in the northeast corner of the lake.

Sarah Harris reports on a new USDA program that uses the targeted information to help farmers in the surrounding watershed change their methods and reduce pollution.

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Robert Howrigan Junior is a dairy farmer in Fairfax, Vermont. On this windy June morning, he’s taking USDA representatives around his fields, showing them spots where he sees erosion and runoff. "Well, just shows you the different strips of land and the ditches in between," he said, pointing to his land. "This is this field that’s a little steeper, more highly erodible I guess you’d say."

Howrigan is one of 40 farmers who have signed up for a new USDA program this summer. It is intended to help farmers in the Missisquoi Basin in Vermont change their land management practices so that there’s less runoff and phosphorus pollution going into Lake Champlain. This program is unique in that the department of agriculture is picking up the tab; they’re using $1 million to pay 100% of the cost for farmers to make changes.

For Howrigan, that will mean permanently seeding his cornfields. Soon they’ll be hayfields, and the vegetation will help prevent erosion and runoff. Kip Potter is a state resources conservationist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. He and Howrigan discussed which methods would be best utilized on Howrigan’s land. 

“You’d indicated you’d wanted to do some permanent seeding down here on this field," said Potter, looking at his notes. Howrigan agreed; there is a ditch in the field that fills with water during heavy rains in the spring. Howrigan also has another tract where he wants to do some cover cropping and said, "I think it would qualify as highly erodible.” 

Part of the reason why USDA officials have high hopes for this effort is because it's based on a study by the International Joint Commission. The study used a new model to map precise fields where risk of erosion and runoff is highest. They're called critical source areas.

Julie Moore is a water resources engineer with Stone Environmental, an environmental consulting firm in Montpelier, Vermont. She explained, "A critical source area of phosphorus is a place on the landscape, maybe it’s because of soil, because of slope, because of the type of land use, that disproportionately contributes to the phosphorus pollution in Missisquoi Bay." Moore worked on the study, and says that the results are allowing the USDA to better target their conservation effort. 

"The random approach is what we’re currently taking where there’s no priority given based on the risk of a particular parcel of land," Moore said. "The priority is given to the landowners who express the most interest. So in turning that around and focusing on the areas of the landscape that have the highest risk of phosphorus pollution, it should produce better results."

Phosphorus pollution in Missisquoi Bay has been a problem for decades. Potter cautioned that changes in water quality won’t happen overnight and said, "The question is, are we going to be able to see the effects of this in the bay anytime soon? That’s a much more difficult question. Sometimes it takes a number of years, maybe decades, to see improvements in the receiving waters.”

Others say that an incentive program isn’t enough. Louis Porter does Lake Champlain water quality advocacy with the Vermont Conservation Law Foundation and said, "I think incentive programs are necessary and are good, and they should be targeted as well as they can be. But I also think we need a more stringent regulatory approach in the state and in the watershed."

That approach, he says, should benefit both farmers and lake health. "We have to figure out a way to keep farming going and to keep farming viable without giving up on water quality and without providing what is essentially a pollution subsidy to those farmers who don’t operate with the best practices possible,” said Potter. But he and his colleagues at the USDA remain optimistic. They say that, slowly, water quality will improve as they work to reduce pollution one field at a time.

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