Grassed Waterways: An Effective Water Quality Strategy

The following article by Jeffery Sanders, UVM Extension Agronomy Outreach Professional, was originally published in the October 2016 edition of Vermont’s Agriview.

While grassed waterways are nothing new in the world of soil erosion and water quality, their adaptation in the Northeastern United States lags far behind counterparts in other parts of the United States.  In the Midwestern corn belt where memories of the dust bowl and the severe erosion problems of the past are still in memories and family histories, the idea of taking care of erosion issues decisively and effectively are evident everywhere on the landscape.  We do not want the devastating loss of topsoil the Midwest experienced to be our fate in Vermont.  A plane ride over any corn belt state will provide ample evidence of the efforts to mitigate soil leaving fields through the implementation of different practices.  The one that is highly visible and effective is grassed waterways.

A grassed waterway is a simple structure designed to absorb energy from moving water while holding soil from eroding in areas where water is prone to moving in concentrated flow across crop fields.  The idea is that you fill gullies and flatten out slopes in an effort to remove energy from i.e. slow down the water as it moves across the field.  This area is then seeded down and left in a permanent state of vegetation.  The vegetation acts to hold soil particles from being mechanically lifted and moved off fields while also helping to reduce the speed of the water so it has less ability to cause erosion.  A well designed and implemented grassed waterway will keep water from moving down slope without concentrating the flow into a stream.  It will move the water off the field without allowing it to pick up enough energy to move soil.  Grassed waterways have been found to be very effective at reducing erosion in high risk locations on crop fields.


Picture: Grass Waterway Cross-Section Diagram

While the idea of “giving up” productive ground to install a conservation measure seems foreign to many landowners in the Northeast, it shouldn’t be.  You can tell easily where grassed waterways would be an effective tool in a landowner’s toolbox for keeping soil on their fields.  Wherever you have gully erosion, not much is growing and it is wet and rough (from eroding topsoil), a grassed waterway may be able to fix your issue.  The productive ground in many cases is not all that productive because soils tend to be saturated with frequent water inundation which can prohibit quality crop growth.

In many cases grassed waterways do not need to be much wider than 20 feet depending on the situation.  The benefit to your field, equipment, and the environment easily offset any yield loss from not cropping that area.  Also, in some cases you could install grassed waterways wide enough to crop.  For example, a perennial forage could be seeded using a design which would allow the farmer to turn equipment within the boundaries of a grassed waterway.  The idea is not that you need tall vegetation but that you need a sod base or other vegetation with a good root system to help hold the soil.  If you are looking for the motivation to install one, but to date have just kept filling in that gully every spring, keep a few considerations in mind.

Here in Vermont with new regulations passed under Act 64, it is a violation of the law to have soil leaving fields in concentrated areas and entering waters of the state.  More importantly, it makes no business sense to allow this to happen.  The top six inches of top soil on your farm is the most important asset you have, so why let it leave your farm?  You have fertilized and cultivated the soil to grow your crop for your business.  Letting it go down the ditch is just bad business.

Furthermore, soil erosion creates sedimentation problems in ditches and creates additional work in the field to fill in gullies with more topsoil in an effort to prepare the field for planting.  If you think about the zone of influence, where the concentrated flow of water is causing problems on your field, it is probably larger than the entire grassed waterway would be. The amount of area you need to cover with soil “pulled” back into the gully to repair it just to have it wash out again is no doubt larger than the area of a grassed waterway, which would cure the problem.

Furthermore, soil erosion creates sedimentation problems in ditches and creates additional work in the field to fill in gullies with more topsoil in an effort to prepare the field for planting.  If you think about the zone of influence, where the concentrated flow of water is causing problems on your field, it is probably larger than the entire grassed waterway would be. The amount of area you need to cover with soil “pulled” back into the gully to repair it just to have it wash out again is no doubt larger than the area of a grassed waterway, which would cure the problem.

Installation of grassed waterways is a very cost effective method of addressing soil erosion on crop fields.  Many farmers already have the necessary equipment to move and shape the soil so that the grassed waterway will perform adequately.  In many cases a box blade and a Brillion seeder will make short work of a grassed waterway project depending on scale.  For larger gully erosion control, bulldozers are effective tools to move, shape, and level the contour.  Typical construction of a grassed waterway takes between one to two days.  NRCS has sample designs and job sheets that can guide a farmer through the installation for installing a grassed waterway without government assistance.  Google “NRCS grassed waterway design” and click on Engineering Field Tools (EFT) for more information or go to this webpage:

Grassed waterways following NRCS design are built to have an average lifespan of 10 years and require little annual maintenance.  NRCS and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets (through its Best Management Practice (BMP) grant program) can also provide financial assistance.  Keep in mind, this may require a more detailed engineering effort depending on the project, but funds are available.

The Farmers Watershed Alliance was awarded a grant from the Lake Champlain Basin Program* to install three grassed waterway projects in the summer of 2016.  These structures were constructed and farmers are very happy with the results. The farmers were actively involved with the projects and worked with their selected contractors to ensure the installations where done in a manner that they could work with.   As the farmers are experiencing, it actually is a common sense solution to a common problem on many Vermont fields.


Picture: Before construction of grassed waterway showing accumulation of snow in sloped area of field.


Picture: After construction of grassed waterway showing an ideal stand of a conservation mix.

lcbp_logo                                 neiwpcc_logo

*This project was funded by an agreement awarded by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission in partnership with the Lake Champlain Basin Program.  NEIWPCC manages LCBP’s personnel, contract, grant, and budget tasks and provides input on the program’s activities through a partnership with the LCBP Steering Committee.  The viewpoints expressed here do not necessarily represent those of NEIWPCC, the LCBP Steering Committee, or GLFC, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or causes constitute endorsement or recommendation for use.

In Memory of Guy Palardy…

It has been almost three months since Guy Palardy’s sudden departure. He is remembered as a thoughtful community member and strategic agriculturalist that used cutting edge techniques.   In short, he was a leader on and off his farm fields. The following words are reflections from the Farmer’s Watershed Alliance about Guy.

“Our friend Guy Palardy’s interest was agriculture, a highly diversified topic, but something which piqued his interests and commanded his attention. Guy was a deep thinker, a highly spirited farmer, and always a gentleman. Several years ago he had traveled to Washington DC early in the morning and returned later in the day to Montpelier. I recall being present when he arrived at the end of the day to offer testimony before a field hearing of The US Senate Committee on Agriculture, it had been convened by Sen. Patrick Leahy at the Statehouse in Montpelier, a fact finding mission which pertained to anaerobic digesters and green energy, and something for which Guy offered his insight and enthusiasm to the committee.”

-Bill Rowell


“The first time I met Guy was at a farm meeting here on our farm.  We started to talk about farming and the subject of tiling came up.  We both had had a lot of the same ideas about how the tile should be put in the ground.

“There was a time that I saw Guy at a local welding (fabrication) shop. He explained how he wanted a part made that would go onto his equipment.  He impressed me with his ideas on how to make something work.

“Just recently, he spoke in groups about tiling and GPS and how he set it up on his tractor.  Farmers and other Agriculture agency folks listened attentively to Guy as he shared his knowledge and experience on this subject.  Guy was a man who demonstrated his passion for farming and he surely will be missed.  His untimely passing is a big loss for the whole farming community.”

-Wayne Fiske


“I knew Guy as a proactive farmer, always willing to try different methods of farming with his land that were both profitable and good environmental practices.
He had a tiling operation which he used on his farm and also did work on fields of many other farmers. He became very well educated in the GPS technology which he used for tiling.

“I believe he had been using GPS to pre-apply fertilizer and plant his crops the next spring near the fertilizer, trusting the GPS guidance. I am not sure if he was using zone till or no till.

“I knew Guy mainly from winter conference meetings where sometimes he was a featured speaker and would share his knowledge to many farmers.

“Also, he was very involved with his community as he was a selectman. Being a selectman myself, I know firsthand the commitment involved and responsibility to govern your town can be tedious, time consuming but very rewarding to give back to the community.”

-Larry Gervais


“Guy was a great asset to the farm community and the community as a whole. I knew him mostly through seeing and talking to him at UVM extension field days, where he was always enthusiastic to share ideas. He seemed to view life as an experience to
learn and share. The interaction I had with Guy was always comforting as his approach to sharing ideas was unbiased in his ability to share, so both parties could learn from the conversation at hand. These interactions helped Guy become a leader in his field, using the most advanced precision Ag systems in the state, and implementing that technology in his strip till operation. He was and is a role model for farmers who wish to be innovative and strive to think outside the box.”

-Scott Magnan


“Guy was a leader and we followed as fast as we could to catch up! If every person and every farmer cared for the land and soil like Guy did our world would be a much different place. The bottom line was important, but Guy understood that improving the bottom line could be obtained by investing in the health of the land not by degrading it.

“Guy cared about the environment. He was worried about the impact that his farm might have on the surrounding water. He was conscious of his management and indeed implemented practices to reduce his impact. Guy recently attended my tile drainage meeting and commented at the end that if tile drainage is impacted the water we can’t ignore it we must figure out how to minimize the impact…this coming from a man that installed tile!

“He respected the soil beneath his feet and knew if he took care of it in turn the soil would take care of him and his family. He was concerned about the health of the soil and wanted to take all measures to protect it from degradation. Farmers have watched Guy’s practice of being patient with the land. I have heard them comment more than once that “there is something to it…He waits to plant, not rushing, and his crops are always good…” He set the example of what many hoped to do.

“In 2010 he attended my first reduced tillage conference and there was a farmer talking about strip tillage from New York. After the meeting many of us decided that we needed to try this practice. He became interested in reducing tillage as a means to protect the soil and of course reduce the costs of growing crops.

“I wrote a grant to purchase a Blue Jet Strip Tillage Implement and had it for farmers to use. Honestly no one could figure it out! I talked to Guy and asked, “Can you take it and make it work?” Well, he did and he did more than that…He revolutionized the system, adapted it for our region, and of course worked and worked to perfect this practice for the region. As he did with most things he studied, learned, sought knowledge, and critically synthesized every bit of information he could to continue to improve the practice.

“He is the only farmer that I know in VT that implements this innovative practice. I am sure he would disagree that he perfected the practice because that was the way Guy was …nothing was ever just right and there were always improvements to be made…sure enough he developed an entire fertilizer system to compliment the strip tillage practice. Once again I was amazed with his commitment and innovation.

“I also credit Guy with bringing precision agriculture to VT farms. He certainly was the authority on this technology and even the equipment dealers sought his opinions and expertise on the topic. He was invited by myself and others to conferences and workshops to share his expertise on this topic. Now precision agriculture is used quite widely in VT, but Guy was one of the first.

“Guy made us all work hard just to keep up with his thoughts and questions. It was humbling at times as he truly was just light years ahead of the rest of us. He was curious and innovative, yet humble and patient…a winning combination.”

-Heather Darby

Three Types of Tillage and Four Types of Manure Incorporation

UVM Extension has a long-term term research trial investigating the results of no-till, strip-till, and vertical-till with different types of manure incorporation- injected, broadcasted, aerwayed, and plowed.

Minimum tillage methods like no-till, strip-till, and vertical-till may result in an initial lull in yield for the first few years, but after the soil has been given an chance to recover and improve, yields are rather comparable.  (You can read more here:

UVM Extension would like to thank Scott Magnan’s Custom Services for injecting manure into minimum tillage plots at Borderview Research Farm in Alburg.

Here is a photo of Scott Magnan’s Custom Services injecting manure:


Manure injection allows for minimal soil disturbance and less odor.

Here is a photo of broadcasted manure:


After the broadcast manure, the fields were aerwayed:


Aerwaying allows for broadcasted manure to be incorporated in the field with minimal soil disturbance.

Some plots were plowed:



The Farmer’s Watershed Alliance Received an Environmental Merit Award from the EPA

EPA Awards 3 Environmental Merit Awards to Vermont Recipients

(Boston, Mass:  April 22, 2014) Today, the U.S. EPA recognized three organizations and/or individuals from Vermont at the 2014 Environmental Merit Awards ceremony. The Vermont awardees were among 26 recipients across New England honored for contributing to improving New England’s environment.

Each year EPA’s New England office recognizes individuals and groups whose work has protected or improved the region’s environment in distinct ways. The merit awards, given out since 1970, honor individuals and groups who have shown particular ingenuity and commitment in their efforts.

“We extend our congratulations and gratitude to this year’s Environmental Merit Award winners, who are helping to ensure a cleaner environment and healthier communities here in New England,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office. “In addition to iconic natural beauty and vibrant communities, New England is fortunate to have citizens who care deeply about the environment we share.”

The 2014 Environmental Merit Awards program was dedicated to Ira Leighton, former deputy regional administrator for EPA New England’s office who died in 2013 after 41 years of service to EPA.

“Ira truly loved the Environmental Merit Award ceremonies and deeply appreciated the environmental stewardship and commitment of citizens across New England,” said Spalding.

The Environmental Merit Awards, which are given to people who have already taken action, are awarded in the categories of individual; business (including professional organizations); local, state or federal government; and environmental, community, academia or nonprofit organization. Also, each year EPA presents lifetime achievement awards for individuals. The Environmental Merit Award Winners from Vermont listed by category are:


Farmers’ Watershed Alliance 

The Farmers’ Watershed Alliance is a non-profit, dairy farmer-based organization in northern Vermont’s Franklin and Grand Isle counties.  The Alliance was established, in collaboration with the University of Vermont Extension, to promote good environmental stewardship practices and improve water quality in the Lake Champlain Basin.  The Alliance is a wonderful example of the power of peer-to-peer networks.  Its founders understood that farmers are more likely to accept help and advice, and sometimes a challenge, from their fellow farmers.
Dairy farmers continually face fluctuating milk prices, increasing fuel and fertilizer costs, and expensive technologies and management practices to minimize pollution problems coming from farm production areas and fields.  This organization is helping to bridge the gap between farmers wanting to do the right thing to prevent impacts to water quality but feeling uncertain about where to turn to for education, technical assistance, and financial resources.  The Alliance shares information and uses demonstration projects to show farmers how they can address water quality problems.  It can help farmers identify environmental risks on their farm and develop an action plan specific to those risks. The Alliance helps organize training sessions with the University of Vermont Extension and engages in discussions about water quality challenges and opportunities with federal and state agencies.

The Farmers’ Watershed Alliance’s success in farmer-to-farmer collaboration has led to the formation of the Champlain Valley Farmers Coalition, a sister organization, made up of farmers in the middle and southern portions of Lake Champlain Basin, interested in promoting sustainable agricultural practices.  These networks are playing an important role in shaping Vermont’s plans to restore Lake Champlain.


Pixley Tyler Hill and Ted Tyler
Highgate Springs, Vermont
Pixley Tyler Hill and her brother Ted Tyler are co-owners of the Tyler Place Family Resort in Highgate Springs, north of Burlington on Lake Champlain.  The resort’s history spans six generations from an 1800’s tenting community to the family destination of today.  Generations of visitors first learned the beauty of Lake Champlain with the Tyler family. Pixley and Ted are also well known as fierce and tenacious advocates for protecting Lake Champlain from nonpoint sources of pollution.  Pixley is the founder of the influential watershed organization Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, formerly named Friends of Missisquoi Bay. Pixley and Ted’s commitment to Lake Champlain extends beyond the north lake and Vermont, as they have both served as a long-time member of the Lake Champlain Committee which serves Vermont and New York. Ted served for nearly a decade on the Vermont Citizens Advisory Committee on the Future of Lake Champlain, a governor appointed committee tasked with crafting annual recommendations for lake protection.  When Ted’s turn was over, Vermont Governor Shumlin appointed Pixley to the seat he long-held by her brother. Perhaps, one of the most epic enjoyable events Pixley is known for is the Annual Tyler Place Event.  For the past 10 years, the Tyler family has generously and graciously hosted an annual dinner at their own expense for hundreds of lake advocates in the northern lake from Vermont, New York and Quebec to discuss lake issues with legislators, researchers, citizen advocates, shoreline landowners, and many more.  The Vermont Governor has often attended these events.

Business/Industry/Trade or Professional

Duane Peterson and James Moore, co-Presidents
Waterbury, Vt.

It all started with a pilot project within the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.  VPIRG Energy was created to make it easy and affordable for Vermonters yearning for sustainable energy sources for themselves.  Within a year they helped 300 families to go solar. They knew they had a business model that worked but also realized that to scale it up to serve many more Vermonters they would need a separate entity and investment capital, and so SunCommon was born in early 2012.  Their mission: to tear down the barriers that made renewable energy inaccessible and repower Vermont communities, one home, school and business at a time.

In two short years SunCommon has grown to become Vermont’s largest residential solar business, helping over 700 Vermont homeowners to go solar. SunCommon’s commitment to positive environmental impact runs throughout its business process. Its headquarters are in The Energy Mill, Vermont’s largest “net zero” office building. SunCommon is also a pioneering Benefit Corporation, with a legal charter that directs them to attend to the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. Benefit Corporations put their investors, employees,  and neighbors  on notice that while they intend to make a profit so that they can grow their business, they also will do right by their workers, the communities in which they operate and the habitats that sustain them.

Recently, 92 companies worldwide were recognized for creating the most positive overall social and environmental impact by the nonprofit B Lab with the release of the third annual B Corp Best for the World list.  The list honors businesses that earned an overall score in the top 10% of all Certified B Corporations on the B Impact Assessment, a rigorous and comprehensive assessment of a company’s impact on its workers, community and the environment.

Leighton “In Service to States” Award
The Ira Leighton “In Service to States” Environmental Merit Award was initiated by several environmental groups and EPA New England. The groups involved were the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission, the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, the Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association and the New England state Environmental Commissioners, along with EPA.

The award went to Ken Kimmell, who worked at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection from 2011 to March 2014 and before that as General Counsel at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs from 2007 through 2011. During that time, Kimmell demonstrated a stellar record protecting the environment, proactively addressing climate change, promoting sustainability and innovation, and advancing clean energy technology at the state, regional, and local levels.

Manure Spreading Ban Lifted

In a message circulated by Nathaniel Sands of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, an early end to the winter ban on spreading manure on Vermont farm fields was announced.

As a result of unusually warm and dry weather, lack of snow and projected weather forecast over the next few weeks the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets in agreement with the Agency of Natural Resources and Vermont Association of Conservation Districts is lifting the winter spreading ban that normally is in place until April 1st. According to Secretary Chuck Ross, “I am lifting the ban because I believe it will help farmers best manage their manure resources and is in the best interests of Vermont’s waterways.” David Mears, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation agreed stating “Current conditions are favorable for manure application. Taking advantage of good weather now may prevent application of manure later when conditions may not be as good.”
The manure spreading ban is a regulation that has been in place since 1995 under the Accepted Agricultural Practice rules. Vermont was a leading state in developing such a ban, however in recent years several other states have been considering or adopting the idea. Research has shown that manure applications on frozen ground can increase the runoff potential. Vermont chose to select a ban period from December 15th to April 1st each year to protect water quality; however the Agency has discretion with those dates to accommodate these exact types of circumstances.
Farmers are reminded that Vermont’s Accepted Agricultural Practices Rules and medium and large farm permit requirements apply as appropriate including:

  •  Manure shall not be spread within 10 feet of the top of the bank of surface waters or within 25 feet at points of concentrated runoff on small farm operations
  •  Medium and Large farms shall not spread manure within 25 feet of the top of the bank of surface waters
  •  Manure shall not be applied in such a manner as to enter surface water
  •  Manure applied to land subject to annual overflow from adjacent waters shall be incorporated within 48 hours
  • The Agency also highly recommends that the following practices be observed while the spreading ban is lifted:
  •  Avoid spreading manure during or just before rain events. Remember that manure cannot be spread in such a way as to run off the intended site during application.
  •  Where appropriate, incorporate manure as quickly as possible.
  •  Avoid spreading manure on fields that are subject to annual overflow from adjacent surface waters. Manure spread on annual crop land that is subject to annual overflow from adjacent surface waters shall be incorporated within 48 hours.
  •  Consider using split manure applications and reduced manure application rates.
  •  Do not apply to land that is still snow-covered or frozen.

Mission of the Farmers’ Watershed Alliance

Our Mission Statement

The Franklin and Grand Isle Farmer’s Watershed Alliance mission is to insure environmentally positive solutions and enable the dairy industry through education and funding to better the soil, air, and water of the Lake Champlain Watershed while remaining economically viable. Secondly, to promote and defend dairy farming to further it’s future as one of the largest contributors to the state’s economy.

Goals of the Farmer’s Watershed:

  • Provide farmers with a support network
  • Help farmers understand environmental regulations
  • Provide farmers with non-regulatory technical
  • Provide farmers with whole farm assessments
  • Help farmers develop nutrient management plans
  • Provide farmers with whole farm assessments
  • Stay connected to actions in the legislature
  • Provide the public with a positive image of agriculture and it’s influence on the environment