State auditor queries ag agency’s tracking of water quality spending

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Posted on July 29, 2018 in In The News, News

State Auditor Doug Hoffer, whose office released its report on water quality spending on Monday

The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets needs to do a better job of ensuring that taxpayer dollars go to the most effective on-farm water quality improvements projects, according to a report released Monday by the state auditor’s office.

Since 1996, the Vermont Legislature has appropriated more than $22 million from the state’s capital fund to pay for best management practices on Vermont farms — such as installing manure pits and cattle stream crossings in pastures and barnyards. The improvements constituted 58 percent of the agency’s investment in clean water in fiscal year 2016, according to the report.

State Auditor Doug Hoffer said in an interview Monday that providing grants for best management practices on farms is a “curious” use of money from the capital fund, which generally pays for public projects like renovations of state buildings. “The idea that taxpayers would pay to help a polluter reduce the pollution leaving his or her property is also pretty unusual,” he added.

Hoffer’s office reviewed 30 of the 64 agency grant-funded projects from fiscal years 2016-2017.
The data the agency collected during that time period, however, did not answer whether the on-farm projects represented the “biggest and best return on this investment of public money,” Hoffer said.

“It’s frustrating to say this (program) has been going on for 20 years and we don’t know what impact this has,” he said.

Since the passage of Act 64, Vermont’s Clean Water Act, the legislature also has appropriated millions of dollars from the capital fund for other clean water projects. The biggest lump sum has gone to ecosystem restoration grants, administered through the Agency of Natural Resources.

The agriculture agency uses a point system to determine whether proposed best management projects meet state clean water objectives. While the assessment tool gives more points to projects in the Lake Champlain basin, as required by law, on-farm projects in watersheds that drain into the three most polluted sections of the lake — Missisquoi Bay, St. Albans Bay and the South Lake — are given no additional weight, the state auditor’s office found.

The agency needs to prioritize projects in those watersheds, the report concludes. Otherwise, the state “may be directing limited resources to…projects that do not offer the greatest nutrient pollution reduction.”

Laura DiPietro, head of the water quality division for the agency, said that since the passage of Act 64 in 2015 the division has made a point of reaching out to farmers in impaired watersheds.

“We all did our outreach and education … to get these people to be the applicants,” said DiPietro. She added that with changes to the state’s required agricultural practices the program has seen a surge in applicants.

The agency has farmers agree in writing to maintain projects after installation. However, the agency does not directly monitor farmers’ upkeep of the projects, nor does it provide farmers with a plan for maintenance, according to the report. “If the conservation practices do not achieve their useful life, nutrient pollution reductions will not be as expected,” the report said.

DePietro said that most farmers who apply for funding to implement best management practices do so after an inspection by the state “shows a deficiency” on a farm. She said that the state and partner organizations like the NRCS then assess in subsequent inspections whether the farm has addressed water pollution challenges.

“There is a lot of oversight and there is a lot of documentation, but it just isn’t in a place where we can say, ‘here’s our follow-up on a specific best management practice,’ ” said DiPietro.

The agency also did not provide the Department of Environmental Conservation — the body in charge of calculating how the state is meeting its phosphorus reduction requirements — with adequate data to determine phosphorus reduction from best management practices, according to the report.

DiPietro said that the agency provided the DEC with that information in a memorandum of understanding. She said the agency is working to develop a more accurate way to model the effectiveness of various best management practices at reducing phosphorus runoff.

“Anyone who can stand there and look at a stream that’s degraded because cattle have access to it would agree that once you put the fence up and remove the animals, the site will improve,” said DiPietro. “But taking that and saying how many exact pounds of phosphorous does that exclude is much more challenging.”

Hoffer called the agriculture agency’s dual mission of promoting and regulating farms a “questionable practice in terms of strategic planning for the state.” He referred to the Jay Peak investor fraud case, in which officials for the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s EB-5 regional center failed to regulate a program that they were also tasked with promoting.

“EB-5, to me, is a cautionary tale of allowing the same entity to be an advocate and regulator at the same time,” he said.

DiPietro responded that her division focuses solely on regulation, not on promotion. “Certainly any of us like to have products that we know are safe and good for the environment, so good regulation is good promotion in itself,” she said.

This article was originally published July 2, 2018.

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