‘Lake in crisis’ targeted with new legislation

Lake Carmi was closed for months because of toxic algae blooms caused by pollution from local dairy farms. Photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger
Lake Carmi is facing a “crisis” due to pollution from the surrounding dairy farms, according to a bill discussed at the Statehouse this week that would call for emergency action from the state.
Residents living around the state’s fourth largest lake say pollution is not only making it unusable and unattractive — having been turned green by toxic bacterial blooms — but is also posing health risks and causing property prices to drop.
One of these bacterial blooms, caused by liquid manure runoff used by surrounding farms, prevented swimming in the lake for months last summer, according to the state health department.
It was an extreme example of a worsening problem that has been “devastating to the local economy,” according to Franklin Watershed Committee President Peter Benevento. “We need to stop the agricultural practices that are destroying Lake Carmi.”
Bill H.730, which was the topic of testimony before the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife on Thursday, will outline the actions to be taken by the state as part of an emergency response to the situation at Lake Carmi, and perhaps other lakes beset by pollution.
“This bill proposes to authorize the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to declare a lake to be in crisis if the condition of the water poses a potential harm to the public health, poses a risk of damage to the environment or natural resources, or is likely to cause significant devaluation of property value or other significant negative economic effects,” the current draft states.
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, said responses could include assigning a single lead agency or official to tackle Lake Carmi’s farm pollution, banning manure spreading on farms that feed into the surrounding watershed or buying out certain farms around the lake.
Fewer than 10 farmers or companies husband fewer than 20 farming operations in the Lake Carmi watershed, state officials said. Those farms are responsible for 85 percent of the water pollution causing unsightly, stinking and toxic cyanobacteria blooms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Franklin homeowners say legislators must act, because Gov. Phil Scott’s appointees won’t.
Agency of Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts is already vested with powers to take emergency action and stem the flow of farm pollution by forcing farmers to change their practices, “but he has chosen not to use them,” said John Barrows, a former president of the Franklin Watershed Committee.
“So we need an authority that will choose to do something — that will act,” Barrows told lawmakers.
State law does provide Tebbetts with the authority to require so-called “Best Management Practices” so long as affected farmers are subsidized sufficiently to put those practices in place, the former agriculture secretary said in 2014, explaining the agency’s refusal to assert those powers near another body of water polluted by farm runoff.
Tebbetts said on Friday that his agency was “working nonstop on improving the condition of Lake Carmi,” but did not have “blanket authority to prohibit nutrients from being applied to the land.”
“We will not let up until we get to a better place,” he said.
Tebbetts has made some progress on Lake Carmi’s cleanup. In October, his agency announced that it had removed phosphorus-laden sludge from a tributary pond. Though it was entirely taxpayer-funded, that effort alone took two years of persuasion before the farmer who owned the pond would voluntarily permit the work.
After years of pressing for action, residents of Franklin County are losing patience, said Selectboard member Peter Magnant. He said 80 of the town’s homeowners let their displeasure be known when they paid taxes on land around the lake that they believe is now overvalued “because they’re not getting the full benefit out of their properties” as a result of the pollution.
Magnant said it’s possible for farmers to make a living without poisoning public waters. And it’s critical that they do, he said, because as Lake Carmi goes, so goes Franklin’s economy.
“What we’re seeing now is not acceptable,” Magnant said.
Polly Gadbois, a Franklin resident, said the scum and the stench caused by cyanobacteria blooms are driving down property values in the area. Financial consequences aside, the bacterial blooms are also just repellant to live near, she said.
“We need the full support of our Legislature and our governor, it’s imperative,” Gadbois said.
Scott’s administration violated state statute and a federal order last year when it failed to identify a long-term funding source to aid primarily farmers in reducing their water pollution. It said tackling the pollution problem did not require any additional revenue.
Letting the water pollution problem fester could undermine another of the governor’s promises, to expand the state’s tax base by increasing the number of Vermont residents, said Rob Evans, who owns a camp on Lake Carmi.
“Much like the conversations that Gov. Phil Scott has been having about keeping our youth and seniors in the state, many of us at Lake Carmi, who are looking forward to retiring on the lake, are having second thoughts and wondering if Lake Carmi is a safe place to bring our future grandchildren,” Evans said.
Sen. Carolyn Branagan, R-Franklin, said the issue of clean water is an important one for her and her constituents, and that she’s eager to work on the bill once it arrives before the Senate Agriculture Committee on which she sits.
However, Branagan said she wants to make sure that the interests of farmers were taken into account as well — and wasn’t convinced that any of the ideas being considered for Lake Carmi achieved the necessary balance.
Someone needs to produce milk, she said. And if the state just buys out 20 or so dairies around Lake Carmi, that doesn’t address the larger pollution problems faced by the state, and would leave those farmers without a job, she said.
“I’m not going to come in with guns blazing; that’s just not how I operate,” she said.
Rep. Steve Beyor, R-Highgate Springs, said the situation being faced by Lake Carmi struck him as exactly the sort of situation that required emergency action.
“That town is dead without that pond,” Beyor said of Lake Carmi. “We can’t just shut down everything. I don’t think even the people on the pond want to shut down farming … but we’ve got to find a way.”
Read the story on VTDigger here: ‘Lake in crisis’ targeted with new legislation.