Conservation to Improve Water Quality
by Glenn Scherer
Damien Boomhower, a third-generation Franklin County farmer, is on the leading edge of a Vermont-wide effort to improve the state’s water quality. His grandparents, Carolyn and Sonny Boomhower, conserved Bittersweet Valley Farm with VLT in 1992; it was the first VLT-conserved farm in Fairfield.
“Twelve years ago we put in water tubs to keep the herd out of the brook,” Damien recalls. But they found that stronger water management measures were needed. “With every passing year, we were losing more and more valuable pasture when the brook flooded, so we took action.”
“We did a huge project,” says Damien about improvements that began in 2007, “creating a willow buffer along the brook, and excavating the floodplain,” to re-establish the stream’s natural meander pattern.
Damien and his brother Jordan are decreasing contamination of the brook by constructing animal-restriction fencing; building gravel cow lanes and stream crossings, lining their manure pit with plastic, and building a solar barn where cows feed without muddying the barnyard.
“Fortunately we had a lot of help,” Damien adds. Major funding and technical support came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service with implementation and supervision by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
As part of this work, the family worked with VLT to create a river corridor easement on three acres of land along the brook. The Boomhowers received funding from DEC in exchange for giving up their rights to manage the channel around the brook.
Among other protections, the easement designated a buffer area along the brook where woody vegetation will be allowed to grow and farming activities will be prohibited. The roots of these plants help reduce erosion and absorb nutrients.
Today, the organic dairy is a model of good water management (It won a Lake Champlain Basin Program Farm Conservation award in 2008). “We’ve slowed pasture erosion considerably and brook contamination,” says Damien. “We’ve learned a lot about managing cows and water.”
That effort benefited more than the farm, since Wanzer Brook drains into Black Creek, which flows to the Missisquoi River and Lake Champlain. Phosphorous and other dissolved nutrients have polluted the lake, causing explosive algal growth that consumes oxygen and harms aquatic life.
While farmers have made major strides to reduce agricultural pollution through the voluntary implementation of best soil, manure, and fertilizer management practices, agriculture remains a significant source of pollutants in the Lake Champlain and Connecticut River watersheds.
Many different approaches will be required to improve the state’s water quality. Adding provisions to protect water quality as part of farmland conservation is one important approach.
This year, 75% of farms with water features that are receiving funding for conservation from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board include water quality provisions. Furthermore, all farm conservation projects funded by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service will have a farm management plan that includes water quality provisions.
VLT’s stewardship crew works with landowners who have already conserved their land and who are interested in improving water quality. “We help farmers meet their water management goals by giving referrals to state and federal agencies who provide programs, funding and technical assistance tailored to farmers’ needs,” says VLT Stewardship Director Tyler Miller.
Prominent among these are the CREP program, to establish high quality stream buffers, and EQIP, which helps with farm infrastructure development to minimize water contamination.” (See page 4).
“Overall, I’m optimistic and hopeful for the future of Vermont water quality,” says John Roberts, a Vermont Agency of Agriculture Small Farm Water Quality Inspector and a member of VLT’s board of trustees. “Farmers are very aware of their role in water contamination, and the vast majority are stepping up to the plate to improve things.”
Roberts suggests that farmers interested in making improvements pay attention to farm topography. “Watch to see where everything flows. Make sure dirty water is not going directly into a stream, wetland, or ditch. And if you need help, ask for it. Don’t wait for an accident.”
The Boomhowers have reaped major benefits from their effort. “Improved water quality has enhanced everything on the farm,” says Damien. “Soil quality is better, erosion less, the herd healthier, and the great blue herons love the changes we’ve made, as do the ducks, which means fish are more plentiful too. All the work has been well worth it.”
Department of Environmental Conservation River Corridor Management Easements: This easement protects major streams. A landowner sells channel management rights to DEC, which manages the stream for the good of the waterway, letting it flow freely within a designated corridor. VLT usually completes a couple of these easements each year, though funding is limited.
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP): This voluntary, incentive-based program institutes streamside buffers on agricultural lands. CREP offers compensation to landowners who take land out of production and establish buffers for 15 years or longer. CREP funding and technical assistance comes from the federal Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in partnership with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP): This NRCS program offers contracts that provide incentive payments and cost share payments to solve water quality problems associated with animal wastes and leachate. EQIP supports the installation of fencing, stream crossings, compost facilities or manure pits, livestock water ponds, strip cropping, buffer strips, nutrient management, and well monitoring.
Vermont Agency of Agriculture: The agency regulates through Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs) to prevent discharge of farm waste into surface water, and also provides technical assistance. These AAPs are currently being revised, with improved rules due in 2015. See current AAPs at: http://agriculture.vermont.gov/protecting_lands_waters
Other Programs: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides farmers with labor and plantings for buffers. Watershed groups and waterway friends groups often can leverage funding for buffers and cover cropping.