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Farmers Help Further Water Quality Science

Local Producers Implement New USDA Water Quality Monitoring Program

Whitcomb Water Quality Monitoring Station, Williston Vermont












In a time where higher input prices, tighter budgets and shifting workloads have become normal for the agricultural industry, how do we know our limited time and resources are being used in best way possible? In Vermont, innovative farm managers around the state hold the quality of their land resources in the highest regard, but historically, the efficacy of conservation Best Management Practices (BMPs) have been difficult to prove with local data. Recently the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began revising the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of phosphorus for Lake Champlain due to high pollution levels. Understanding where the inputs of nutrients to the lake are coming from, and how best to treat the resource concerns, is now more important than ever.

Farmers, environmental conservationists, and American tax payers who live and work in the Lake Champlain Basin want the biggest return in water quality improvement for their money. By knowing what conservation practices work best under specific site conditions, government funding can be more expressly targeted to resource concerns. Farms like the Williston Cattle Company, owned and operated by Lorenzo Whitcomb and family, are doing what they can to advance the science of water quality. Whitcomb attended the first public meeting hosted by the USDA on a new edge-of-field water quality monitoring study in June of 2011. It was here he offered the use of his 500 acre dairy farm along the Winooski River for water quality studies.

As part of the 24th Annual Northeastern Nonpoint Source Conference held in Burlington, Vermont on May 15th 2013, leaders in the field of environmental conservation participated in a tour of current edge-of-field water quality monitoring projects, and visited the Whitcomb farm. Current BMPs implemented by Whitcomb include cover crops, buffers, manure injection, reduced tillage, animal composting facility and leechate collection at bunk silos. The edge-of-field monitoring system has been installed to sample and measure the water quality associated with a reduced tillage system on the farm. During the current one-year control period, Whitcomb will plant the two study fields in corn and manage them using conventional tillage and surface application of manure. This will produce a baseline on water quality associated with traditional farm management. After the control period, one field will be converted to a reduced tillage, which includes strip tillage, manure injection and cover crops. Water samples will continue to be taken from each field for at least another two years. This study design allows researchers to focus in on the affects of the conservation practices, and exclude factors such as changes in precipitation.

An artificial boundary is created around each study field to create a small-scale watershed. Berms and swells are created to collect all water and send through the monitoring station. Plywood channels force the runoff water into a fiberglass flume where a sensor measures water height and flow rate. This data is sent to the consultant in Montpelier and can be monitored in real-time. Water flows through the flume to a splash-pan, where the samples are sucked through a small tube at a regular interval and stored inside the monitoring shelter. Fifteen people have been trained to collect samples from the edge-of-field stations and perform routine maintenance. The stations do not require any electricity, as the installed solar panels create more than enough to power what is needed.

Paired watershed studies like this one are taking place around the Lake Champlain Basin to examine the effect of selected conservation practices on sediment and nutrient losses. As the funding vehicle for these studies, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) worked closely with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM) to select an environmental consulting company the farms could work with who specialize in data collection technology and methods (Stone Environmental, Inc.). As of June 2013, seven monitoring sites have been implemented on six farms around the Lake Champlain Basin. Over the next few years NRCS and its partners intend to expand this study and document improvements in water quality associated with the selected conservation practices on Vermont farm fields.

For more information on program eligibility, please visit the EQIP page of the Vermont NRCS website or visit your local USDA Service Center.

Lorenzo Whitcomb explains his manure injection system to the NWEIPPC tour participants

Study Fields at Whitcomb Farm, Williston Vermont