Government red tape and farmers' distrust of regulators is hampering quick-fix solutions to some farm pollution of Vermont rivers and Lake Champlain, several lake cleanup groups have concluded.

In response, the Vermont Citizens Advisory Committee on Lake Champlain has drafted a call to state and federal regulators to cut through those problems by:

Granting farmers amnesty until 2009 from pollution enforcement when the farmers voluntarily disclose problems and seek help to clean them up.

Reducing the share of the cleanup costs that a farmer must pay.

Fixing just the specific problems disclosed by farmers, without requiring an inventory to identify every pollution issue on the farm.

State officials say they are willing to discuss the idea, but said they already try to help farmers rather than punish them for problems. They also questioned whether the idea of a grace period is legally possible.

"What farmers want is the ability to raise their hands and say, 'I have a problem,' without opening themselves up to an enforcement action. They don't want to be in the crosshairs," said Buzz Hoerr of Colchester, chairman of the lake committee. The committee advises the federally funded Lake Champlain Basin Program.

Farms, urban stormwater and wastewater treatment plants contribute phosphorus pollution that feeds algae and weed growth in the lake. Agriculture is considered the largest source in the farm-dominated Missisquoi Bay and St. Albans Bay watersheds.

Phosphorus in animal feed and cow manure reaches the lake when rainwater and snow melt run off barnyards or fields that have been newly spread with manure. Manure storage pits can overflow. Milkhouse waste and water leached from silage bunkers, too, can flow through ditches to small streams.

"When farmers know they have a problem, they want to fix it," said Jason Burt, a dairyman who milks 240 cows in Georgia and who helped launch the Farmers Watershed Alliance to work on pollution issues this year.

Many farmers are discouraged by the expense of cleanup measures, he said, particularly this year when milk prices have plummeted while fuel and fertilizer costs continue to rise.

Bad experiences with government regulators also discourage farmers from coming forward, according to Roger Rainville of Alburgh, another founder of the Farmers Watershed Alliance.

"There is that fear factor. Farmers don't know who to trust," he said. He said distrust is particularly acute in Franklin County, the aftereffects of conflicts between farmers and the federal government over clearing of wetlands several years ago.

"After that, farmers have been hesitant to come forward about anything," he said.

Burt said he personally was dismayed when state Agency of Agriculture officials last winter urged farmers to report problems on their neighbors' farms.

"The goal is to clean up the lake, not to spy on your neighbors. That is not a good thing," he said. 'A little Marshall Plan'

Another volunteer group, Friends of Missisquoi Bay, has been working vigorously on anti-pollution programs in Franklin County, motivated by toxic algae blooms in the shallow, nutrient-rich bay.

Its members are eager for quick steps that might have an immediate impact.

"Instead of spending all the money on expanding manure storage, we ought to go after significant problems that farmers themselves can identify and that are not as expensive to solve but are serious water-quality problems," said Pixley Hill of St. Albans, an active member of the group.

"We need to focus on what we can do in the next six to 36 months to really make a difference -- we need a kind of little Marshall Plan for the lake," she said. Gov. Jim Douglas has set 2009 as a deadline to meet federal targets for phosphorus pollution reductions in Lake Champlain.

Farmers and the government have spent millions in the last two decades constructing manure pits, establishing buffer strips and changing crop practices to abate the run-off, but many problems remain.

A recent state government report estimated it would cost $61 million to fix the manure run-off on all Vermont farms. State and federal funds cover up to 80 percent of the cost of solutions like new or expanded manure pits. Farmers must pay the rest.

Hill's group and the Farmers Watershed Alliance met several times with the citizens' committee this spring to hear farmers outline what needs to be done and the obstacles to faster progress. A draft motion addressed to state government and calling for the grace period and funding changes was the result.

Government response

Government officials greet the idea with sympathy -- and skepticism.

Natural Resources Secretary Tom Torti said he understands farmers' hesitation to come forward for fear of being cited for a violation: "They don't like that piece of paper that says they were doing something wrong."

Trouble is, he said, the way state and federal law work, there might be no way around citing the farmer for discharging pollutants into a waterway even if the farmer identifies the problem himself.

On the other hand, Torti said, once the notice of a violation is filed, the state is eager to help the farmer clean up rather than to pursue punishment.

At the state Agency of Agriculture, a spokesman agreed.

"We aren't going to hit you over the head, but we are going to stop the pollution," said Phil Benedict, director of agricultural resource management. He said a kind of grace period already exists.

If polluted runoff is found to be reaching a stream, the agency issues a "corrective action letter" to the farmer. It comes with a list of people and funding sources to help correct the run-off. The farmer is given 30 days to notify the department what steps he will take.

At the Citizens Advisory Committee, Hoerr said he understands this would be a new approach for regulators -- one justified by the urgency of the problem. The group is waiting for Torti's analysis of their plan's feasibility.

"We have stepped forward, urging people to get out of their boxes and get this done," Hoerr said.

Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or e-mail cpage@

What's at stake

THE PROPOSAL: A Lake Champlain oversight committee is suggesting that farmers should receive amnesty and more cleanup aid when they voluntarily disclose manure runoff problems that pollute rivers and the lake.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE: State officials say there might be no way around citing the farmer for discharging pollutants into a waterway even if the farmer identifies the problem himself. However, officials said, the state aims to help farmers find ways to clean up their pollution problems rather than pursue punishment.