Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, came to Burlington last week and with great fanfare, surrounded by politicians, with Lake Champlain as the backdrop, announced that the feds will spend $45 million to help farmers reduce the amount of phosphorus-laden run-off that reaches the lake.
The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will administer the money for projects in Missisquoi Bay, St. Albans Bay and South Lake Watersheds — areas surrounding Lake Champlain where blue-green algae blooms are most frequent.
Over the past decade, the USDA invested $46 million in similar programs in Vermont. Vilsack said the federal money must now be rolled out to farmers faster. He said the new conservation money will flow to farmers over the next five years.
The money will be used to provide farmers with the technical assistance to develop new farming practices, including cover cropping, different tillage systems, planting vegetative buffers between fields and waterways, and other fertilizer management practices designed to keep nutrients on fields. Vilsack said USDA is committed to keeping six NRCS conservationists on the ground in Vermont to assist farmers.
Good news, right? Well, if so, why are the folks who have historically been most concerned about the health of the lake not jumping for joy?
Their worry is that spending money to make changes around the edges of the way Vermont farms operate is never going to be enough, that propping up the dairy industry, as it exists today, with more federal cash is not the answer.
What’s required, and what’s so conspicuously missing from the solutions being offered today by the state and federal governments, is a sustained commitment to do job number one: to clean up the lake. That won’t happen unless there are fundamental changes in the way farms do business.
An interesting parallel to the current situation with phosphorus run-off is the problem posed historically by acid rain. Acidic precipitation compromised water quality in lakes and ponds and killed trees across the Northeast. It was caused by pollution — mostly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — spewing from fossil-fuel-burning power plants in the Midwest. Congress amended the Clean Air Act to include strict limits on these emissions; cap-and-trade programs in pollutants were established; and automobile emissions were cleaned up significantly via catalytic converters. The acid-rain problem, while hardly solved, has been dramatically reduced.
Advising farmers on managing the vast amounts of phosphorus they’re putting on farm fields may be fine, but wouldn’t it be preferable to look for ways to meet our demand for milk and other farm products that don’t lead directly to polluted streams, rivers, ponds and lakes?
Clearly, we all need to agree on the goal, which is clean water in Vermont’s lakes and ponds. We would all hope that we can have both a healthy dairy industry and clean water. But clean water has to come first. Once we agree on that, we can have a meaningful discussion about whether it makes sense to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to encourage farmers to cling to the status quo, to farming practices that are threatening the long term health of the lake.