Top Vermont officials told farmers in the agriculture-dependent northwestern corner of the state on Monday they could be held legally accountable if they don't participate in a series of efforts designed to clean up Lake Champlain.
Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, Attorney General William Sorrell and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said the enforcement actions against farmers would only be taken as a last resort.
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Before discussing the enforcement plans the three outlined a series of measures the state would take, including providing the state staff to help farmers design and pay for projects that would keep pollution-laden runoff from reaching streams and rivers and ultimately Lake Champlain.
But their bottom line was clear.
"We're serious. We mean it," Ross said during a 90-minute meeting in the gymnasium of the St. Albans City Hall. "But we're also serious that we mean we want to help people do the right thing because we know, it's been shown many times, that most of the agriculture community is engaged, interested, (they) want to make a contribution, have made a contribution and will continue to make a contribution."
The enforcement could include loss of tax benefits that could potentially cost farmers tens of thousands of dollars a year in increased property taxes. The state also would have the authority to limit livestock.
In recent years the 125-mile-long lake, the border between northwestern Vermont and New York state that extends into Quebec, has seen some of its shallower parts choked with algae blooms blamed on excess phosphorus that flows into it. At least 40 percent of that runoff comes from farms, in some places more, Ross said.
State officials are worried that if they can't come up with a plan to clean the lake the Environmental Protection Agency could impose its own version of a Lake Champlain cleanup.
The state had initially planned to hold Monday's meeting in the City Council chambers, but the crowd of farmers and other interested people force it into the gymnasium.
Farmer Richard Longway, who with his family milks about 450 cows in Swanton, said he'd spent more than $100,000 on pollution control measures in recent years, but the Jewett Brook watershed where his farm is located, along with other farms, is still one of the most polluted brooks in the state.
"Am I complaining about it? No, it helps the water quality, but that's part of Jewett Brook. Why is Jewett Brook higher (with pollutants) than it ever was before?" Longway said, noting everyone he's worked with from the state has been great. "We've done the buffer strips, we were 2006 conservation farm of the year, we've done all these things and it's worse."
Despite his best efforts, he's worried he could face sanctions.
For example, a hired man could get the manure spreader stuck and end up spilling manure into a brook, and Longway could be fined.
"It's through human error," he said, "that this thing could get expensive."