Farmers are cheering plans to delay the adoption of new water
quality standards on Vermont agriculture operations. Critics,
however, say the decision to postpone will only exacerbate the
pollution issues that have led to toxic algae blooms in Lake
Champlain and other water bodies.
The new rules are part of a water-quality bill that lawmakers passed
in 2015. And they’re supposed to reduce the amount of phosphorus
flowing off of farms and into lakes and rivers.
But farmers say they haven’t had enough time to vet the complex
regulatory proposals. They recently asked the Agency of Agriculture
to delay adoption of what are known as Required Agricultural
“A lot of issues have been raised that have yet to be resolved, so
there’s more work to be done before the formal rule is ready to go
out for primetime,” says Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural
Vermont, which represents small farmers.
The agency apparently agrees with Stander. Last week, Secretary of
Agriculture Chuck Ross penned a letter to legislative officials
seeking their approval to push back the formal adoption of new
rules, from July 1 to September 15.
In his letter, Ross cites the massive feedback from the farming
community in the drafting of proposed rules. And he says giving the
state more time to accommodate some of that input won’t
significantly set back the state’s pursuit of the new water-quality
"There's more work to be done before the formal rule is ready to go
out for primetime." - Andrea Stander, Rural Vermont
James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International,
has been a vocal critic of the state’s efforts to curtail the flow
of phosphorus and other pollutants into the state’s waters. Ehlers
says he'd feel differently if he thought the delay would result in
more effective rules.
“But right now the Agency of Agriculture’s reputation is not one of
being proactive, and quite frankly this is terribly, terribly
disappointing,” Ehlers says.
Ehlers says the clock is ticking if Vermont wants to avoid
irreversible ecological harm to its public waters.
“The economic argument that one industry ... should get a free pass
while other people’s personal financial situations are being
destroyed, their businesses are being compromised and public health
is being threatened, I don’t think there’s room for any delay,”
"The economic argument that one industry ... should get a free pass
while other people's personal financial situations are being
destroyed ... I don't think there's room for any delay." - James
Ehlers, Lake Champlain International
Rebekah Weber, the Lake Champlain Lakekeeper at the Conservation Law
Foundation, says CLF also is disappointed by the delay. Weber says
the organization will use the extended timeline to push for more
stringent Required Agricultural Practices.
“The RAP’s list of authorized activities in buffer zones, for
example, including grazing, fertilizer application and harvesting,
we feel that that completely warps the definition and purpose of a
buffer,” Weber says.
Weber says the proposed RAPs would also allow for continued
application of manure to farm fields, even if soil tests show the
ground is already saturated with nutrients.
“If you have 20 parts per million, which demonstrates the soils are
basically saturated with phosphorus, you shouldn’t be applying any
more manure, period,” Weber says.
Jane Clifford, executive director of the Green Mountain Dairy
Farmers Cooperative Federation, says the department deserves credit
for taking farmer feedback so seriously. Clifford, a dairy farmer
herself, says the issues are important enough to take the time to
get them right.
"I don't believe there is another agency or department that has
taken the amount of time and energy that the Agency of Agriculture
has taken to go through this process." - Jane Clifford, Green
Mountain Dairy Farmers Cooperative Federation
“I don’t believe, and this is my perspective, I don’t believe there
is another agency or department that has taken the amount of time
and energy that the Agency of Agriculture has taken to go through
this process,” Clifford says.
Stander says the economic viability of some small farms hangs in the
balance, and that the latest iteration of the RAP proposals, such as
ones dealing with manure-application restrictions and
nutrient-management planning, could be harmful.
Some small farms, for instance, could be required to comply with
something known as a NRCS 590-level nutrient-management plan.
“And that is a very complex and expensive process to go through,”
Stander says. “In many cases that level of nutrient management
planning would not be necessary or even effective on their farms.”
"I'm trying not to use cliches, but slippery slope: Once you start
extending deadlines, you just keep doing it." - Rep. David Deen,
House Committee on Fish Wildlife and Water Resources chairman
Westminster Rep. David Deen, the Democratic chairman of the House
Committee on Fish Wildlife and Water Resources, says he’s inclined
to give the agency more time to formalize the new rules. And he says
he doesn’t think meeting the original July 1 deadline would have
much impact on practices during the 2016 farming seasons anyway.
But he says he thinks the state should get only this one delay.
“I’m trying not to use clichés, but slippery slope: Once you start
extending deadlines, you just keep doing it,” Deen says.
Lawmakers will consider the request for the extension this week.