Pilot project pays farmers to keep phosphorus from reaching Lake Champlain

Published: Mar. 9, 2021 at 3:25 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 9, 2021 at 7:11 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont is making progress at cleaning up Lake Champlain but concentrations of phosphorus that lead to toxic algae blooms are still a big problem. Our Calvin Cutler reports on a new initiative to pay farmers to help stop phosphorus from reaching the lake.

At issue, cow manure washing off Vermont farms, running into streams and then into Lake Champlain, creating toxic algae blooms.

In the last five years, Vermont has made big strides in keeping phosphorus out of the lake, with a nearly 60,000-pound reduction from agricultural lands alone. Plus, new rules for road and stormwater runoff are in the works. But even then, we still have a long way to go.

An experimental pilot project funded by a $5 million federal grant looks to speed up the process.

“This program is looking to build on the current success of current programs,” said Ryan Patch of the Water Quality Division of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

Patch is working to spearhead the new “pay for performance” program which looks to pay farmers for the difference of the total pounds of phosphorus reduced compared to federally required amounts.

Farmers can use cover crops, manure injection, filter strips and other methods to reduce runoff from fields, especially in the spring.

The goal is to reduce 15,000 pounds of phosphorus.

“This is an opportunity to look at the whole farm management. How practices stack on top of each other and how we can magnify that benefit,” Patch said.

Keeping closer tabs on the total runoff means more costs and recordkeeping for farmers which may be a deterrent. For some, this financial incentive may not be enough, so advocates say it may have other benefits as keeping phosphorus on the farm can improve soil health and save farmers money in other areas.

“If they improve their soil health and all of their benefits, this all adds to the process of making their operation more economically viable,” said John Roberts, the executive director of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition.

Environmental advocates say any program to help lake cleanup is important, but they’re also concerned about its sustainability.

“We’re privatizing, obviously, the profits and socializing the cost and that doesn’t seem sustainable to me or equitable, quite frankly,” said James Ehlers, an environmental advocate.

About 10 farms are participating in the project now but the state hopes to enroll 100 farmers over the next five years. That, they say, will depend on farmers being able to spread the word and show each other how the program pays off.

Applications for the project will open this fall.

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