U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (USDA) Tom Vilsack Thursday joined Senator Patrick Leahy and other Vermont leaders at the Lake Champlain waterfront here to announce $42 million in new federal funding over the next five years, from the recently enacted Farm Bill, for water-quality-driven conservation measures on Vermont farms in the Lake Champlain watershed. The funding adds up to one of the largest commitments to cleanup efforts in the lake's watershed since the lake's water quality became a high ongoing priority more than two decades ago.
Joining Vilsack and Leahy for the announcement, at ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, were Congressman Peter Welch and Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross. Leahy is the most senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a leader in the Senate panel's efforts to bolster land and water conservation efforts in the new Farm Bill, which was signed into law on Feb. 7.
The funds will directly support Vermont farmers' efforts to eliminate phosphorus-laden runoff in the Lake Champlain Basin by helping with the infrastructure needed to properly store manure and for improved practices to better apply manure so that it feeds the soil and is not lost from the land and drained into Lake Champlain.
Leahy said: "I am deeply grateful to Secretary Vilsack for taking to heart what Governor Shumlin, Congressman Welch, Senator Sanders and I have been telling him about the importance of restoring the lake's health, and then for joining us in Vermont to announce this significant commitment. We are at a moment of great need, but also a great moment of opportunity to improve Vermont's agricultural water quality. Our farmers are ready. They are well informed and eager to participate -- so-much so that we quickly went through our original allotment of USDA funds this year, and farmers still continue to apply. EPA is moving forward with strong new phosphorus standards. Milk prices are up, giving farmers some room to take on new projects, and Vermonters strongly support a cleaner lake. Now is the time to act, and these funds will contribute greatly to helping us meet that goal."
Welch said: "Thank you to Secretary Vilsack for this important support for water quality efforts in Vermont. The future of our lake will depend on effective conservation measures, which these funds will support."
Shumlin said: "Clean water quality is critical to our economy, to our health and to our communities. I am grateful that Agriculture Secretary Vilsack came to Vermont to announce a significantly increased USDA commitment to support our efforts to improve water quality. Federal resources, aimed at polluted runoff, are critical to enable Vermont to work with our farming community to implement the practices needed to help our lake recover. These resources will give us the ability to meet the challenge outlined in the TMDL compliance proposal I recently submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency. There is no doubt that we must expand the progress we are making on water quality in Vermont. I appreciate the hard work of Senator Leahy on this effort, and I look forward to continuing to work with Secretary Vilsack and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to address these challenges."
Sanders said: "We know that blue-green algae blooms are more prevalent in warm, shallow waters such as Missisquoi Bay. We know that, in the last few years, warmer water temperatures associated with climate change and extensive nutrient loading from frequent storms and flooding are causing blooms to appear in a broader area of the lake. We also know that great efforts have already been made by our farmers, especially those who have joined the Farmers Watershed Alliance, working closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to mitigate much of the non-point source pollution which was ending up in Lake Champlain. Farmers have focused on the less costly solutions, but some big problems remain and technical assistance is needed as well. This new federal funding will go a long way in providing the major match needed to assist in the completion of the more complex water quality projects."
The $42 million commitment, along with additional funding made available in the 2014 Farm Bill, will be distributed through conservation programs run by USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service, which typically pays 75 percent of the cost of a qualified project, with the farmer paying the balance. Leahy, long a leader on and the legislative author of a variety of conservation policy and programs, pushed to write strong conservation program provisions and funding into the Farm Bill. Welch did the same as the House worked on its version of the bill, and Sanders also strongly supported conservation initiatives in the bill.
USDA conservation programs benefit farmers who voluntarily step forward to improve management on their farms. While helping to improve water quality, many of the practices also provide economic benefits to farmers by improving soil health and productivity. Examples of conservation work include implementation of cover crops and waterway buffers, nutrient management planning, and manure handling infrastructure.
Agricultural runoff is recognized as being only part of problems related to Lake Champlain's health, contributing about 38 percent of lake's phosphorus, basin wide. Developed lands contribute more than 45 percent and rural roads and urban streets are also major sources.