SHARON — As Vermont faces an increasingly unreliable water supply due to climate-change related drought and unpredictable rain and snow events, a new state law requires some farmers to keep records of surface water withdrawals.
Passed by the legislature this year and signed into law by Gov. Scott, Act 135 mandates that farmers withdrawing more than 10,000 gallons of surface water within a 24-hour period, or 150,000 gallons over any 30-day period, annually report their withdrawal amount.
The state defines surface water, which is used mostly by fruit and vegetable farmers, as: “rivers, streams, creeks, brooks, reservoirs, ponds, lakes.” Farmers that irrigate from groundwater sources or off-stream farm ponds are not subject to the reporting requirements.
The law was largely put in place so that the Agency of Agriculture could build a body of data to better understand water usage in the state. If a farm exceeds withdrawal limits, compiling the data for the annual report will require keeping daily records of water usage.
“The bill will provide the framework for collecting as much data as possible for farms,” Ryan Patch, Agriculture, Climate and Land Use Policy Manager at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said. “It sets a low threshold for reporting to better refine data to help inform future policy development.”
Vermont farms withdrawing surface water are estimated to use around 355 million gallons across the entire state of Vermont, which is equivalent to the lower range of the annual surface water withdrawal by Okemo Resorts in Ludlow, Vermont, according to a presentation given by Patch to the state legislature. Excluding the use of water for thermoelectric power, irrigation accounts for around 4% of total water usage in the state (while snowmaking accounts for around 12%).
“Most farms that need surface water are veggie farms, and the amount of irrigation needed is generally less, or well under, what would be the withdrawal limit,” Patch said, but added that “in planning for climate resilience,” it’s important to compile as much information from water users as possible. The release on the agency’s website states that keeping daily records of surface water usage is “the most simple and straightforward recommendation the agency can give farmers.”
But just because the recommendation is “straightforward,” doesn’t mean that it’s easy, some farmers say. They see the new law as another burden in an already demanding regime of state-related obligations.
Colemann Colburn, owner of Fresh Roots Farm in Sharon, said that the surface water reporting requirement could cause problems for farmers.
“These things don’t feel necessarily designed for small farms, which Vermont is based on,” Colburn, who started Fresh Roots in 2011, said. “They talk about issues with young people not wanting to remain in Vermont, and farmers aging out and needing to retire. But how are they encouraging this at all? They’re adding to my workload and to the everyday stress that already exists in farming.”
As dry conditions in the state take their toll on his vegetables, Coleburn shares Patch’s concerns about water variability. “Especially with the changing climate, the way things are going, it’s like quite literally is this trying to drive small farms out of business in favor of larger farms that can report it more easily?”
Each year, Vermont farmers submit a compliance report regarding their adherence to the state’s Required Agricultural Practices, which include strict rules mitigating the impact farming has on water quality and soil health. For this new surface water reporting requirement, University of Vermont’s Cooperative Extension is aiming to get some low cost water meters to farmers, Patch said. But for now, the agency has example recording templates on its website, with blank daily fields for farmers to report information like pump flow rates and irrigation duration.
Norah Lake, owner of Sweetland Farm in Norwich, said that further information about the necessities of the data collection would be helpful. “We don’t want to just be collecting data for the sake of data,” Lake said.
She also sees this legislation as a one-size-fits-all attempt at solving a more complex problem.
“I think it’s one of the things that sets small and large farms apart because oftentimes a larger-scale organic farm, or a factory farm, has the means to hire someone who is entirely focused on that,” Lake said. “And that’s just not an option for us small farmers. It ends up being one more ball that has to be kept in the air.”
Lake respects the agency’s efforts to design a state-wide climate resilience plan, but has reservations.“One of the dangers is that plans sometimes don’t have as much nuance in them as they should,” she said.
If a farmer exceeds the withdrawal limit, they are required to file their first annual report by Jan. 15, 2023.
Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at 603-727-3242 or [email protected].