Dairy farmers in northwestern Vermont told the state Agency of Agriculture on Thursday that they back state efforts to reduce phosphorus pollution, but say they are not the only source of the pollution in Lake Champlain.
About 50 farmers, clean water advocates and lakefront property owners turned out for a public hearing on possibly additional rules for reducing phosphorus pollution from farms in the Missisquoi Bay Basin.
"The lake situation is not entirely the farmers' responsibility," said Bill Rowell, of Sheldon. "But in the last year I feel that the state of Vermont and a lot of the public has come up with a sentiment levied at the farmer to make the farmer feel unwelcome. And I don't think that's being responsible on the part of the population or the state.
The state says 40 percent of the phosphorous flowing into Lake Champlain comes from farms; the rest comes from roads, parking lots and discharges from municipal wastewater treatment plants.
Many people who spoke at the hearing said they were in favor of Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross requiring farmers to abide by best management practices to reduce pollution while acknowledging that other sources also need to be addressed.
Gerard Sparacino said he and his wife assumed when they bought their camp in Highgate Springs in 2003 that the state would take the appropriate steps to reduce the phosphorus loads that feed the toxic blue-green algae blooms in Missisquoi Bay. But he said the blooms have increased, with this summer being the worst.
"We were unable to enter the water, even to kayak, for over two consecutive months," he said.
Ross had previously rejected a petition in November 2014 filed, by an environmental group that asked that farmers in the basin to be required to follow best management practices, such as expanded vegetated buffers, manure injection and incorporation into fields and cover cropping.
The Conservation Law Foundation appealed that decision and the organization and the agency reached a tentative agreement in late August aimed at settling the lawsuit. Under the agreement, Ross is considering withdrawing his rejection of the foundation's petition, and held the hearing to gather comments before deciding what to do.
If he withdraws his earlier decision, the agency would assess farms in the watershed to determine if and what infrastructure and conservation measures are needed to prevent pollutants from entering waterways.
Some assessments might conclude that best management practices aren't necessary because the required agriculture practices related to nutrient management, manure storage and buffer zones between crops and waterways that are part of the state's new water quality law are sufficient.
But when best management practices are needed, farms would be required to develop a plan and have one year to start implementing it and up to 10 years to complete it, the agency said. That timeline could be extended if a farm is seeking public assistance and not enough is available, the agency said.
Rowell said best management practices will help to indemnify the farmer.
"Listen, we understand the lake needs to be cleaned up. The farmer has demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to do that," he said.
The agency will continue to take written comments through Nov. 23.