• The lesson of Toledo
    August 06,2014

    The toxic algae bloom that made water in Toledo, Ohio, undrinkable over the weekend ought to be a wake-up call for Vermont. The state has taken tentative tests toward addressing its own pollution problems, but action has been slow.

    Pollution in Lake Erie, from which nearly half a million people in Toledo get their drinking water, comes largely from phosphorus, which is the same pollutant that has created dangerous algae blooms in Lake Champlain. In both Ohio and Vermont, phosphorus comes from agricultural runoff, sewage treatment plants, and runoff from roads and urban areas. The latest algae bloom in Lake Erie produced microcystin, bacteria that cause diarrhea in humans and kill small animals, including dogs.

    Vermont officials unveiled a lake cleanup plan last spring in response to prodding from the Environmental Protection Agency. It was designed to guide action on numerous fronts, especially on agriculture, which is said to be responsible for 40 percent of the lake’s phosphorus pollution.

    Lake Champlain is the largest freshwater lake in the United States after the Great Lakes. Its 125-mile length includes the shorelines of Franklin and Addison counties, the two most productive agricultural counties in New England. Managing the manure, the stream banks and the cattle on the farms of those two counties has become a major challenge for the state, and enlisting the support of the farmers of the region is the best hope.

    When the pollution control plan was unveiled last spring, it was widely touted as the best way forward, though officials failed to indicate where they would get the money to finance the improvements outlined in the plan. It was said to cost $150 million over 10 years.

    In order to help farmers address pollution problems, the state Agency of Agriculture hired an inspector earlier this year to visit farms in Franklin County. That was a preliminary stab at an answer. In a recent report in the Addison Independent, the legislative director for the Vermont Farm Bureau, Bill Moore, said the agency needed 16 to 20 new inspectors to work with farmers around the state to carry out accepted agricultural practices. Moore said that during the recession, the state cut staffing at the agency, and it needs to rebuild its capacity to do its job.

    So the issue comes down to money and will. Vermont is not Ohio. It has less pollution from urban runoff, from industry and from industrial-scale agriculture. A higher proportion comes from the dispersed sources on farms, where cows may trample stream banks and where management of manure is not up to standards.

    Even if the pollution of Lake Champlain is not as extreme as the pollution in Lake Erie, it has reached levels that threaten the lake’s value as a source of drinking water and an attraction to tourism. It appears state officials know what must be done in order to work with farmers to curtail the worst of the phosphorus runoff. And it is widely believed that most farmers understand their role as stewards of the land and are ready to do their part. But they cannot be expected to shoulder the greater proportion of the financial burden. It is going to fall to the state and to the taxpayers, along with assistance from the federal government, to support efforts at pollution control.

    The Conservation Law Foundation has petitioned the Agency of Agriculture to impose standards more stringent than the accepted agricultural practices that the state adopted in the 1990s. The best way to deflect pressure toward more draconian solutions is to take action on the plan now in place.

    Just as the state has had to rehire personnel lost during the recession in the Department for Children and Families, it appears the Agency of Agriculture will need to reassemble the staff needed to put people in the field to make sure that lakeshore towns that depend on the lake for drinking water do not suffer the fate of Toledo.

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