Leahy, USDA announce water quality studies in Lake Champlain Basin

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Leahy, USDA announce water quality studies in Lake Champlain Basin

Wed, 10/09/2019 - 11:09am -- tim

USDA and state partners will lead effort to study the effectiveness of innovative conservation practices on water quality

Vermont Business Magazine The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is launching a multi-year study to assess the impact of voluntary conservation practices on water quality in two Lake Champlain Basin watersheds. These studies – established with other state and federal partners – help USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) quantify the outcomes of conservation efforts of farmers who are taking steps on their land to improve water quality and conserve natural resources.

Senator Leahy, USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey, and Chief of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Matthew Lohr, with Congressman Peter Welch and UVM President Suresh Garimella announced Tuesday at the Echo Center in Burlington two major long-term projects centered on Vermont agriculture and water quality.

Leahy unveiled the establishment of a USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Food Systems Center at the University of Vermont. The center, funded at $3 million per year, over five years, is a result of work by Leahy, Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. UVM and ARS scientists will perform integrated research on small-scale farming and value-added food production and nutrition, to benefit farmers and rural communities in Vermont and across the United States.

Leahy, Northey, Welch, and Lohr also announced nearly $2 million in grants to study the impact of voluntary conservation and stewardship practices on Vermont’s water quality. The multi-year study aims to assist farmers as they work to improve water quality and conservation practices.  

“This study will help agricultural producers in Vermont learn more about the measurable outcomes of their conservation efforts, which impact not only the resources on their own operations, but also the streams and watersheds in their communities,” said USDA's Northey.

This study, funded through NRCS’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), is a joint effort with the University of Vermont Extension and leverages additional support from Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, United States Geological Survey (USGS), Vermont Agency of Agriculture, and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

The study will examine two watersheds with USGS gaging stations placed throughout the Dead Creek Watershed and Headwaters of Little Otter Creek. The study will provide insight into the potential for innovative conservation practices and planning tools to be used together to reduce agricultural sources of phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment in streams. 

The Total Maximum Daily Load in the Lake Champlain Basin caps the maximum amount of phosphorus allowed to enter the lake and still meet Vermont's water quality standards. A 2007 study conducted for the Lake Champlain Basin Program estimated that about 38 percent of phosphorus load is from agricultural land.

UVM Role

UVM president Suresh Garimella addresses the audience at a press conference held October 8 at the ECHO Museum announcing a collaboration between the university and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. To the president’s left are Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and Bill Northey, USDA under secretary for farm production and conservation. (Photo: Sally McCay) 

Vermont has seen strong growth in the number of diversified farms and in value-added food production, as many American consumers have become more aware of where their food comes from and how it is produced. At the same time, challenges for small diversified farms continue to mount, from new crop pests and diseases to regulation, changing markets and climate change. 

To address these issues, the USDA, ARS, in partnership with UVM, has established its first food systems research station designed specifically to study diversified food systems and the small farms that contribute to those systems.

The research station will identify factors that their their affect economic and environmental sustainability, with the goal of better understanding how small farms survive and thrive, and how consumers can best access local sustainably-grown food. 

The cooperative agreement, funded at $3 million for the first year, provides for UVM faculty to collaborate with ARS researchers imbedded on the UVM campus. The ARS Food Systems Research Station agreement will be renewed annually for at least five years. 

Senator Leahy authored language in a 2019 appropriations bill to establish and fund the UVM-ARS collaboration. A provision that Leahy secured in the FY20 Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill would increase funding to $5 million per year should it become law.

Leahy said, “The University of Vermont is known nationally and internationally for its expertise in nutrition and sustainable agriculture, and I’m proud that the USDA ARS researchers will now have a station on campus to draw upon and expand that knowledge base.  Vermont has been at the forefront of diversified, sustainable, local food systems, and this research station will allow other regions to benefit from what we have learned and are building here in Vermont.”

“We couldn’t be more grateful to Senator Leahy for seeing the great need for this research and crafting legislation to support it,” said UVM President Garimella. “Helping small, diversified farms succeed is critical to Vermont’s economic health and at the heart of UVM’s land grant mission. I’m very proud that UVM will be part of this effort and the larger mission to help small farms across the country.”

The goal of the project is to create tangible information farmers can understand and put to practical use to help them sustain their operations, said Jean Harvey, interim dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a co-director of the project.

UVM faculty, in combination with ARS staff, are ideally suited to that task, Harvey said.  “We have agricultural economists, dairy specialists, agronomists, experts who study environmental issues, data modelers, consumer preference specialists and social scientists – all of them focused on Vermont’s small farms and value-added producers,” she said. “We believe the end-product of this joint project with ARS will have tremendous value for the small farm sector in Vermont, in the region and across the country.”

ARS has maintained long-standing collaborations with universities across the country. The UVM project is another opportunity to partner with academia to find solutions to critical issue related to agriculture.

Small farms account for roughly 89 percent of all farms in America, according to the UDSA’s Economic Research Service.

The Agricultural Research Service was created in 1952 to be the USDA's primary scientific research agency. Its main focus is on research to develop solutions to agricultural problems and to disseminate that data. ARS research complements the work of state colleges and universities, agricultural experiment stations, other federal and state agencies, and the private sector. Its research, as in the case of the collaboration with UVM, often focuses on regional issues that have national implications, and where there is a clear federal role. 


NRCS launched CEAP in 2003, and it has furthered the understanding of how NRCS-led conservation efforts are improving watershed health, wetlands, wildlife and working lands. CEAP project findings are used to guide USDA conservation policy and program development and help conservationists, farmers and ranchers make more informed conservation decisions. In total, CEAP assessments have been conducted on 51 watersheds across the nation.

Currently, there are 23 active projects working to quantify water resource and soil health outcomes of conservation in agricultural and rural watersheds. Findings from CEAP watersheds assessments have been used to inform conservation program design and delivery approaches and refine conservation strategies for greater benefits.

For example, in critical conservation areas, such as the Western Lake Erie Basin and the upper Midwest, NRCS is using insights gleaned from CEAP about phosphorus and changes in hydrology to develop more effective conservation practices and systems to intercept and treat water resource concerns. In the Mississippi River Basin, potential impact of innovative practices has been assessed to evaluate conservation strategies.

This CEAP study in Vermont is one of three that NRCS is starting to fund this year. In two new projects in California, NRCS will expand CEAP work on drought and water availability, studying conservation practices for nitrogen and water management and groundwater recharge and their outcomes on both water quality and availability.

“We are looking forward to working with our state and local partners, and with farmers, to dive deeper into our conservation strategy and see what works and what can be improved,” NRCS Chief Matt Lohr said. “CEAP also offers the opportunity to bring innovative conservation and management practices to Vermont’s agricultural community.”

To learn more about CEAP, visit this website or this multimedia story.

Source: BURLINGTON, Vermont, October 8, 2019 —The U.S. Department of Agriculture. Photo: Leahy Twitter