USDA Program Aims To Clean Up Phosphorous In Missisquoi Bay

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Missisquoi Bay has been plagued for years by some of the worst phosphorus pollution and blue-green algae in Lake Champlain.

Phosphorus comes primarily from agricultural runoff. So the U.S. Agriculture Department wants to pay farmers to adopt practices that would keep pollution from running off their fields and into the lake.

On a windy June morning, Fairfax dairy farmer Robert Howrigan Jr. takes USDA representatives around his fields, showing them spots where he sees erosion and runoff. 

"Well just shows ya the different strips of land and the ditches in between," he said. "This is a field that’s a little steeper, more highly erodible, I guess you’d say."

Howrigan is one of 40 farmers who’ve signed up for a new USDA program this summer.

It helps farmers in the Missisquoi basin change their land management practices so that there’s less runoff and phosphorus pollution going into Lake Champlain.

But this time, the Department of Agriculture is picking up the tab. It’s using 1 million dollars to pay 100 percent of the cost for farmers to adopt changes.

For Robert Howrigan, that means permanently seeding some of his cornfields. Soon they’ll be hayfields, and the permanent vegetation will help prevent erosion and runoff.

He and conservationist Kip Potter discuss what methods would be best on the land. 

"You’d indicated you’d wanted to do some permanent seeding down here on this field," Potter said.

"Yup, there’s a ditch down there and the water backs in some  heavy rains. Spring and fall you know," Howrigan said.

"And then there’s another tract where you wanted to do some cover cropping," Potter said.

"I think it would qualify as highly erodible ‘cause it’s somewhat hilly," Howrigan said.

Part of the reason officials have high hopes for this effort is because it’s based on a study by the International Joint Commission. It used a new model to map precise fields where risk of erosion and runoff is highest.

Water resources engineer Julie Moore says the study looked at a "critical source area."

"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 contribute to the phosphorus pollution in Missisquoi Bay," Moore said.

Moore works for Stone Environmental, an environmental consulting firm in Montpelier, and helped conduct the study.

She says recent efforts have focused pollution reduction efforts where landowners have expressed interest. Now, Moore says, the study is helping the USDA to better target conservation efforts.

"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," Moore said.

Of course, phosphorus pollution in Missisquoi Bay has been a problem for decades. Conservationist Kip Potter cautions that changes in water quality won’t happen overnight.

And others say that an incentive program isn’t enough. Louis Porter does Lake Champlain water quality advocacy with the Vermont Conservation Law Foundation.  He says more stringent regulations would 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," Porter said.

But advocates of the program are optimistic. They say that making changes field by field will ultimately mean better water quality in Missisquoi Bay and Lake Champlain. 

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