New Data Indicates Reduced Farm Phosphorus Runoff into Lake Champlain
Colchester, Vermont, August 21, 2017—Just in time for Clean Water Week in Vermont, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has promising news to report about the positive impacts to water quality in Lake Champlain thanks to conservation efforts by farmers.
Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established new limits for how much phosphorus can enter Lake Champlain. USDA-NRCS is one of the agencies that has been working with farmers to implement conservation practices that protect and improve soil and water resources, and ultimately reduce phosphorus runoff.
NRCS reports that recent analysis utilizing models indicates a reduction of phosphorus runoff into the lake as a result of effective conservation efforts. NRCS State Conservationist Vicky Drew applauded farmers for their stewardship which is helping the state meet federal guidelines to clean up the lake. “This data is really a reflection of the hard work and dedication of the farmers in the Basin,” she said.
Phosphorus is a nutrient found in agricultural fertilizers, manure, sewage, and even some household cleaning products. It is a beneficial nutrient in agriculture because it is essential for plant growth. While phosphorus can increase crop production, it also serves as a threat to water quality once it reaches surface waters. Fertilizers, manure, and phosphorus bound sediments can runoff fields into nearby streams. If these streams are part of the Lake Champlain Basin, they eventually make their way through the watershed and into the lake. When high concentrations of phosphorus accumulate in a body of water, plant and algae growth accelerates, which consumes oxygen and creates “dead zones”. These “dead zones” cannot support life and as a result, fish and other aquatic life could die due to the lack of oxygen.
In an effort to help the state meet the EPA phosphorus limits, USDA-NRCS in Vermont developed a Strategic Watershed Planning Approach. This five year plan, initiated in 2015, targets the most impaired watersheds (those known to contribute heavy concentrations of agricultural phosphorus runoff to the lake). These watersheds include St. Albans Bay, Pike River, Rock River, and McKenzie Brook in Addison County. NRCS is working with state and local partners to allocate financial and technical assistance to these areas through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This Farm Bill program helps farmers install conservation practices that protect and improve soil and water quality including reduced tillage, nutrient management, cover crops, permanent seeding, buffers, and prescribed grazing. “The conservation practices installed in the Lake Champlain Basin over the last few years are already making a positive impact on soil and water health,” says Drew. “Our goal was to show measurable water quality improvement, and we are.”
The phosphorus limits set by the EPA helped guide phosphorus reduction goals set for the four targeted watersheds. Using tools developed by EPA, NRCS estimated total phosphorus reductions for the first year of the five year project. The estimated reductions can be viewed at: