Dairy farmers work to clean up Lake Champlain watershed

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(Host) A group of dairy farmers in Franklin County is trying to clean up their corner of the Lake Champlain watershed.

The farmers have launched a number of projects to reduce pollution in the lake. They’re making some headway, and now they’re asking the state to give them more control over how the state clean-up funds are spent.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) About 350 people jammed the Tyler Place family resort near Highgate in the northwest corner of Lake Champlain.

The meeting last week was a brain-storming session on how to speed up the clean up of Missisquoi Bay. The shallow bay is damaged by high levels of phosphorus, a nutrient that flows from farm fields and sewage treatment plants. Phosphorus feeds the blooms of toxic algae that sometimes coat the bay with an unsightly, green scum.

Pixley Tyler Hill was the host for the over-flow dinner crowd. Hill’s family has run this sprawling, rustic resort since the 1930s. She said the region is utterly dependent on the farm and tourism economy.

Both are in trouble. Farmers, she said, are being paid milk prices at 1979 levels. And tourists will stay away if the lake gets even more polluted.

(Hill) “Cleaning up the lake, saving our farms – this isn’t recreational, it’s not a job career, it’s not academic, it’s not tree-hugging. This is our livelihoods, the life blood of an entire region. Because if agriculture and tourism and businesses go under, so does the tax base, the banks, the stores.”

(Dillon) The farmers at the meeting talked about some of the steps they’ve taken to keep manure and phosphorus from entering the big lake.

One dairyman fenced off a long stretch of stream that flows through his pasture. Another worked with the University of Vermont extension service to line drainage ditches with a material that removes phosphorus from the water.

And Dick Longway, a farmer from Swanton, cut the phosphorus in the manure in half just by changing the feed that he gives his 400 cows. He also used new injection technology to pump manure directly into some of his fields. He says that virtually eliminates any run off problems.

The problem, Longway says, is that these clean up methods aren’t cheap.

(Longway) “I cut the value of my manure is in half — and I increased the cost of spreading. As environmentalist, that’s a great thing. But my banker’s not looking at that very good.”

(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas has set 2009 as the target date to reduce phosphorus into Missisquoi by 40 tons a year. The state wants to spend an additional $50 million over the next three years on studies and clean up programs.

But farmers at the meeting last week said the state needs to change how it spends the money if that target is to be met. They say the time for studies is over, and that more funds need to go to clean up projects directly on the farm.

The Legislature appropriated $75,000 to help the Farmers Watershed Alliance with projects this year. Roger Rainville, the alliance chairman, says the group appreciates the help, but that more is needed.

(Rainville) “We think if we’re going to reduce phosphorus loads into the lake, into these bays, we have to address these point-source concerns.. If the governor says 2009 is the deadline, we got a challenge on our hands in three years to get something done on our part. And we’re up for it, but 75-thousand isn’t going to get us a long ways.”

(Dillon) State officials at the meeting say they got the message. They promised to be more flexible in spending state funds on pollution control programs in the future.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Highgate.

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