Farmers say they're being unfairly targeted over pollution in Lake Carmi

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Blue-green algae is a stinky, potentially dangerous problem impacting waterways in our region. It could make you and your pets sick while sinking the value of your home.

Now, Vermont lawmakers are looking at farming regulations to combat algae blooms at Lake Carmi in Franklin County.

But the 13 farms near Lake Carmi say they're being unfairly targeted and are pushing back with new information. Armed with new data, farmers showed up in force at the Statehouse trying to show lawmakers that their agricultural practices have changed and phosphorus use has been reduced. They say they're extracting more of the nutrient than they add.

University of Vermont Agronomist Heather Darby says soil tests from farms in the Lake Carmi watershed show appropriate levels of phosphorus on most of the farmland.

"I can clearly say those soils have not had phosphorus overapplied to them," Darby said.

Best practices have reduced phosphorus use. And nearly all of the farmland operates under nutrient management plans. Darby says data she's collected shows phosphorus isn't seeping into the lake anymore.

"Fields have very low losses from erosion," she said.

Farmers in the watershed hope the data Darby collected will change the perception of lawmakers and the public. They feel unfairly maligned.

"It is very scary to be here today. I have hidden for a long time. As a small farmer, it was easier to hide," said Corrina Stanley, who farms in the Lake Carmi watershed.

"Farmers are not the problem. We are part of the solution," said Dina Benjamin, who farms in the Lake Carmi watershed.

Laura DiPietro of the Agency of Agriculture says algae blooms have appeared in the lake since 1860. Agriculture has always existed, leaching phosphorus into Carmi. But in recent years, people became part of the problem, too. Today, 300-plus camps surround the lake. DiPietro says many of them have poor septic systems and contribute phosphorus to the lake.

"None of that goes anywhere. Phosphorus does not leave the system, and so it's in the bottom of that lake and it's in the watershed," DiPietro said.

She says farms have cut phosphorus but it may take an entire generation for Lake Carmi to recover from the cumulative damage of more than 150 years of phosphorus pollution.

"It may not be in any of our lifetimes," DiPietro said. "This is a real issue of legacy and it's going to take a significant number of years to reduce this."

In the meantime, farmers hope they won't be regulated out of business.

"My father died in the middle of a field when we were farming and that's the way I wanna die," said Rolland Rainville, who farms in the Lake Carmi watershed.

Darby says she collected data from the farmers in the past few weeks to help arm policymakers with correct information.