Farm agency blocks crisis intervention on Lake Carmi

Lake Carmi was closed for three months in late 2017 because of toxic algae blooms caused by pollution from local dairy farms. New pollution limits are aimed at keeping Lake Memphremagog from meeting the same fate. Photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger
One of the most polluted lakes in Vermont is likely to see improvement within the next two years as farms in the watershed face increasing pressure to sell off herds, an agriculture agency official told lawmakers Thursday.
Lawmakers are now considering a bill, H.730, that would declare Lake Carmi a state of emergency and require immediate clean up. But steps outlined in the legislation might not be worth the investment if farms in the watershed sell off cattle due to economic pressure, according to Laura DiPietro, Director of Water Quality for the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets.
The lake, surrounded by dairy farms in Franklin County, was shut down for several months last fall because of a large toxic algae bloom caused by phosphorus runoff from fertilized fields. Cyanobacteria poisons water, kills fish, renders water unpotable for drinking and unswimmable for humans.
Like many lakes in Vermont, the perimeter of Lake Carmi is dotted with summer camps. People who live on the lake were alarmed by the extent of last year’s bloom and have demanded that the state take action.
Six farms in the Lake Carmi watershed have caused 85 percent of the phosphorus pollution in the lake, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The legislation calls on the Agency of Natural Resources, which has environmental enforcement authority, to stop the runoff immediately. Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, said the legislation would also require the environmental agency to develop a plan to restore Lake Carmi.
Meanwhile, the agriculture agency, which is responsible for both promoting and regulating the dairy industry, is trying to block the bill. Officials say it’s not necessary to take immediate action. They argue that the problem will go away on its own because more farmers are expected to go out of business soon and most of the problem is caused by historic accumulations of phosphorus at the bottom of the lake.
DiPietro said an emergency action in the Lake Carmi watershed would be costly to implement, and the investment may not be worth it if farmers responsible for the pollution go out of business.
“Most of these farms are actually going out of business and selling their farms, so things are turning in a different direction due to economics, and then we’re in the middle of trying to make these investments, and frankly, at some level, there’s also a choice of: Is it a good investment, if the farm’s not going to be there,” DiPietro said. “These decisions and this timeframe are happening now.
Vermont has fewer than 800 dairy farms, down from about 1,000 a few years ago, and low milk prices will likely drive more into bankruptcy. In the past two weeks, DiPietro said, four “medium farms” in Vermont, with up to 700 mature dairy cows, have sold off herds.
“We don’t implement infrastructure that doesn’t get used,” DiPietro said. “When you have four [medium farms] that are going out of business, the reality is, that is going to be accelerated, because there’s going to be fewer cows at those sites, and so some of the infrastructure will not be necessary.”
DiPietro blamed the algae blooms at Lake Carmi on an accumulation of phosphorus on the bottom of the lake caused by previous generations of farmers who allowed manure and commercial fertilizer runoff to flow unmitigated into the state’s waterways.
Even if every farm in the watershed sold their herds, Lake Carmi would still experience cyanobacteria blooms for years to come, DiPietro said.
Market forces are hurting dairy farmers. Milk currently costs more to produce than farmers make from selling it.
This year Vermont farmers saw milk prices decline for the third year in a row, and many farmers this year are receiving literature on suicide counseling from at least one major milk producer. Farmers are also under pressure from the state to install expensive manure pits and other measures to mitigate runoff.
While dairy farms have historically been the primary source of pollution, DiPietro said, farms in Vermont are growing increasingly less damaging to the environment, she said. While cyanobacteria blooms are growing worse, the blue green algae isn’t new to Lake Carmi, she said.
And yet, inspections of farms in the Lake Carmi watershed indicate there have been no violations of current farm rules, DiPietro said.
Under state statute, it is illegal for anyone to pollute public waters in Vermont without a permit. Farmers, however, who follow “proper” application procedures, are allowed to spread manure or commercial fertilizer on fields, primary sources of phosphorus in the environment.
The agriculture agency is hiring a consultant to determine whether farms that meet current state rules are polluting Lake Carmi, DiPietro said.
“If that’s a reality, there are too many cows for that land,” she said, “but there’s also a cost of how much has been invested, and there are debt and lenders that also have an interest in this, and so I think we really need to think about how big is the problem.”
Enforcement bill stalls
The Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets is statutorily obligated to promote growth in the agriculture industry and to ensure the industry’s economic viability. Protecting water quality is the last priority among several other statutory directives.
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, introduced another bill this year that would transfer statewide authority for enforcing water-quality laws on farms from the Agency of Agriculture to the Agency of Natural Resources.
Campion’s legislation would also require farmers to obtain pollution permits for spreading manure and fertilizer.
The bill, however, has been on ice since Jan. 3 when it was sent to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, chaired by Sen. Robert “Bobby” Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, a defender of the status quo.
While Rep. Deen said herd buyouts, and farm buyouts, ought to be considered as part of the emergency actions in Lake Carmi’s watershed that his bill contemplates, members of Starr’s committee have expressed vocal opposition to the idea.
The state is currently looking at buying out farms in certain isolated cases, DiPietro said.
“We’re looking at the cost of a farm and saying, ‘If it costs more than the grand list, we’ve got to have a different conversation,’ and we’re having those conversations, and we’ve been having them for two years, but there’s a lot of lawyers and a lot of details,” she said.
State-financed buyouts in Lake Carmi could be very expensive for Vermont, especially if that becomes a preferred way of responding to farm pollution, DiPietro said.
Cows on a dairy farm near Lake Carmi stand in running water in violation of “Required Agricultural Practices” rules. Photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger
Read the story on VTDigger here: Farm agency blocks crisis intervention on Lake Carmi.