Will Vermont farmers pay the price to protect wetlands?

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ORWELL, Vt. (WCAX) Vermont is looking to reduce phosphorus in lakes and rivers. And now, the Agency of Natural Resources wants to pass new rules to clean up wetlands. But this could come at a big cost to farmers. Our Calvin Cutler breaks it all down for you.

The ANR is looking to strengthen wetland protections by updating the language of what actually classifies as a wetland. The agency hopes tightening up the language will strengthen wetland protections amid a federal mandate to clean up Lake Champlain. But many in Vermont's agriculture industry say adhering to new rules could come at a big cost.

Mountain Meadows Farm in Orwell lies just a couple of miles from Lake Champlain. A strip of wetlands runs right through the middle and empties into the lake after some 20 miles.

Brian Kemp is the manager. Under the possible new rules, he would have to build a $200,000 bridge to replace an older culvert which, during high water, floods over a path his cattle use. He says he's already put up fences and planted trees to keep cattle waste out of the water.

"That's undue need on the taxpayer base, too, in my mind. Even though it's cost-shared through state dollars, it's still a burden on the taxpayers along with us," Kemp said.

But if the state doesn't clean up its wetlands, it could cost big bucks. Vermont is currently under an EPA mandate to clean up Lake Champlain because it doesn't meet water quality standards.

ANR officials say agriculture contributes about 40 percent of the phosphorus load to Lake Champlain, while developed lands contribute 20 percent and wastewater plants are about 3 percent. Additionally, conservationists say Vermont's wetlands house a diverse ecosystem and play a critical role in protecting towns and property from floods like we saw during this year's Halloween storm.

Lawmakers say we need to reach a compromise on how to effectively deal with wetland pollution.

"Where we are incorporating agriculture, we see agriculture as part of the solution to the climate change wetland value issue," said Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham.

But agriculture leaders say many farmers feel their industry is being singled out to clean up the lake.

"To point your finger at the farmer doesn't indemnify yourself and you won't solve the water quality problem. It needs to be an all-in approach," said Bill Rowell, the chair of the Vermont Dairy Producers Alliance

For Brian Kemp back at Mountain Meadows, the future is unclear. Whatever determination the ANR makes, he says he'll come up to compliance.

"But beyond that is other fees and costs that are projected, delineation fees for these wetlands on other projects on different farms and states that will impact farmers," he said.

And this proposed rule is new for the agriculture industry. Since 1990, farmers who grew food crops or fiber have always been excluded from the wetland permit process.