Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture say farmers in Vermont are making better-than-expected progress in reducing the amount of phosphorus flowing into two of four "priority" parts of Lake Champlain.
According to data from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, farmers in the McKenzie Brook watershed in Addison County and the St. Albans Bay watershed in Franklin County have exceeded USDA targets for reductions in phosphorus runoff.
Phosphorus from farms, roads and other paved areas, stream bank erosion and the natural landscape is carried in water runoff into Lake Champlain, where excess levels cause blooms of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. The bacteria can be toxic to humans and animals.
Farms are the leading source of phosphorus flowing from Vermont into Lake Champlain, contributing about 40 percent of the state's overall phosphorus runoff.
The NRCS effort calls on farms to reduce their phosphorus runoff at an increasing rate. For example, in 2016 the NRCS target for St. Albans Bay was for farms to contribute 1,500 fewer pounds of phosphorus to the bay than the previous year. That means that in 2017, farms would be expected to reduce their phosphorus pollution by an even larger amount.
Instead of a 1,500-pound reduction in phosphorus between 2015 and 2016, however, farmers in the St. Albans Bay watershed reduced their phosphorus pollution by about 3,000 pounds, exceeding the federal goals.
Vicky Drew, the state conservationist for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, says that's good news but it doesn't take pressure off farmers in future years.
"So we doubled our expectations in the first year," she said in an interview Friday. "Now what that means is that next year it has to be even higher. So it's not an individual goal. Each year, we have to go higher above that 3,000 pounds."
Drew said the USDA is working with staff at the University of Vermont Extension program in a multi-year effort that began in 2015 to help advise farmers on methods for reducing water pollution.
"We put in place an action plan to try to get there (meet pollution reduction targets) over the next five years, 2015 to 2020, and targeted our resources - both technical assistance as well as financial assistance to these four priority watersheds . and in so doing we achieved a higher-than-we-thought goal," Drew said.
Farmers in the McKenzie Brook watershed, which flows into the southern part of Lake Champlain, also beat their targets for pollution reductions. The 2016 goal called for a year-over-year reduction of just over 2,500 pounds of phosphorus and the farmers in the McKenzie Brook watershed achieved a reduction of more than 3,500 pounds of phosphorus.
In the two other priority watersheds, farmers fell short.
The USDA target for the Pike River watershed along the Canadian border in Franklin County was a reduction of more than 1,400 pounds of phosphorus pollution. Farmers in that area reduced their phosphorus runoff by less than 1,200 pounds.
The Rock River watershed, also along the northern border, was in a similar situation. USDA targets called for a reduction of more than 1,400 pounds of phosphorus, and area farmers achieved a smaller reduction, falling short of 1,400 pounds.