The Threats from Upstream
Written onDecember 01 , 2011
If only it had been simpler. If only the rain had just washed the crops away.
But the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene didn’t wash much Vermont produce away. Instead, crops on flooded farms became covered in water and silt that potentially harbored chemicals or microbes that could endanger human health. Accordingly, on September 2, the Vermont Department of Agriculture released a warning about the consumption of fruits and vegetables that had been inundated by floodwaters. Borrowing the succinct wording of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Agency stated that “there is no practical method of reconditioning the edible portion of a crop that will provide a reasonable assurance of human food safety.” In other words, flooded crops had to be thrown away.
That decision did not sit well with some farmers who believed the warning was too restrictive by including root vegetables. However, the FDA includes root vegetables in their guidance because there is research that root crops can up-take contaminants. Even for annual spring floods that are not as massive or destructive as Irene, the FDA prohibits the sale of produce that comes in contact with floodwaters, because it always have the potential to contain microbial pathogens.
According to the Vermont office of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, as of early November more than 460 farms in Vermont had been assessed for damage due to Irene. Ten percent of the state’s fruit and vegetable operations were affected, with an unofficial total of 500 acres. Roughly 6,000 acres of feed corn, 225 acres of soybeans, 6,500 acres of hay, 1,700 acres of grazing pasture, and 1,000 acres of maple sugarbushes were damaged. And 9,300 acres of actual farmland was damaged, some of which included the crops mentioned above, some of which did not.
At Dog River Farm in Berlin, there is little evidence of the flood’s effects today, but farmer George Gross estimates a loss of $100,000 in sales because his produce was deemed adulterated. He offered to pay for the testing that would prove otherwise, but the FDA’s position is that only a very extensive series of tests conducted throughout a farm property can provide the assurance needed to allow flooded produce into the market. Contaminants carried in sediments are deposited unevenly and may only pose a health risk on a small portion of an inundated field; as a result, like a game of Battleship, many tests might be necessary to find that one hot spot. How many would a farmer need to be 100 percent sure there was no risk? The cost for such testing could exceed the value of the lost crops.
The chief concern right after the flood was the immediate threat of microbial contamination. Twenty-two of Vermont’s wastewater treatment facilities reported significant problems as the result of Irene, ranging from pump station overloads to pipeline breaks. Sewage from septic systems and manure pits might also have gotten into floodwaters. As of this writing, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources wasn’t able to provide an estimate of the amount of sewage released into waterways, but the threat from biological agents is considered temporary because these contaminants tend to break down over time. A general guideline issued to farmers is to till fields once the soil has dried and then to wait 60 days before sowing an edible crop; however, Vern Grubinger, the vegetable and berry specialist at the University of Vermont Extension, suggests that a wiser approach is to plant a cover crop and to wait until the following spring to plant edible crops.
More ominous are the long-term threats posed by heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and a host of other chemicals that are the legacy of our historic misuse of rivers and wetlands as the recipients of a wide array of pollutants. Organic farmers were especially worried that a positive test for any of those compounds in their soil could result in the decertification of their organic status, with recertification only after a mandatory three-year wait. But Nicole Dehne, coordinator of recertification for the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont, says that very few organic farms affected by the flood actually need to be tested, and she suspected that none would need recertification. The reason is thought to be the intensity and large amount of water transported by the flood—this apparently diluted contaminants, and as of November 1, no fields were found with any contamination above normal background levels.
As for animal feed, farmers are still in the process of testing flooded hay, soybeans, and corn harvested after the storm. (Some acreage was covered with too much silt to be harvested.) Unlike food for human consumption, animal feed can be used if it passes certain tests, but until those tests come back, dairy and livestock farmers must buy feed elsewhere. With the cost of feed rising in general, and with the number of farms in the Northeast damaged by Irene and in need of feed, for some farmers the cost of keeping animals this winter will be unusually high.
Given that it was primarily floodplain farms that were affected by Irene, many Vermonters are now rethinking their human relationship with rivers and floodplains—what they are, how they function, and how they have been historically used and abused—and about the presence of so many contaminants upstream from so many farms.
As noted by Elizabeth Thompson and Eric Sorenson in Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: The Natural Communities of Vermont, floodplains are very active parts of the landscape. In their normal state, streams and rivers continuously move back and forth across floodplains, eroding material in some places and depositing it in others. During flooding events these processes are exacerbated, but floodwaters normally remain within the boundaries of the natural floodplain that formed and evolved in concert with the river. Unfortunately, a large percentage of most floodplains today have been altered and exist in what can be described as unnatural conditions.
Prior to European settlement, floodplains in this region were primarily forested. As described by Thompson and Sorenson, floodplain forests were characterized by spectacular stands of tall silver maple and American elm that stretched for miles along major rivers; more diverse forests of red oak, sugar maple, and other hardwoods existed on the slightly higher terraces where flooding was less frequent. But with river corridors serving as early transportation routes for the new settlers, and the fertile, rock-free floodplain soils providing excellent farmland, the original floodplain forests were mostly cleared by the late 1700s. Although much of Vermont’s upland forests have regenerated, only small fragments of floodplain forest remain, and few areas have been allowed to revert naturally.
Floodplains were the favored locations for many uses other than agriculture, as well. Railroads and highways were often built on raised beds, and water-powered mills were replaced with factories and industries that used water for waste disposal. Today, in many cities and towns floodplains provide the cheapest land to site recreational fields, affordable housing, landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and other facilities. The consequences of this strategy have been twofold: a severe reduction in the capacity of floodplains to blunt the impacts of flooding and a multi-fold increase in the amount of contaminants carried in surging floodwaters, including microbes, heavy metals, hazardous chemicals, hydrocarbons, pesticides, and more.
Our local history of past flooding events adds to our understanding of floods and floodplain ecology. In the 1927 flood, considered one of the most significant events in the history of Vermont, more than 1,200 bridges were lost, miles of railroads and roads destroyed, and 84 lives lost. According to the Vermont Flood Survey, the direct damage to agriculture was estimated to be $1.5 million, and that damage was attributed to the flooding of plants, the erosion of agricultural land, the loss of livestock, and additional land rendered useless due to the deposition of sand and gravel.
Today, local governing bodies bear the responsibility to review development—including the establishment of new farmland—to ensure it is safe from flooding or that flooding is tolerable. Reed Sims, a Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist with the Vermont office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, performed an analysis, at Local Banquet’s request, to determine the current acreage of farmland found on soils classified as potentially being flooded at least once in 100 years. He found that roughly 19 percent of Vermont’s current cropland and hay fields—91,000 acres—share this potential risk. (This number does not include Essex County, where soil surveys were incomplete.)
In response to Irene, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture used GIS mapping to locate all the contaminant threats upstream from, and around, farms that were affected by the flood. Carey Giguere, the Agency’s agrichemical management section chief, says this information could potentially be made available for all farms in the state. Farmers can contact the Agency to get assistance in locating potential upstream threats to their farms during future floods.
As for what can be done about threats from upstream, as of this writing there were no legislative proposals or policy recommendations being considered in Vermont that would seek to regulate contaminants that threaten farms, according to Charity Carbine-March, an environmental health advocate at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. And farms have little control over what contaminants are around them. As Carey Giguere says, “You can’t ask your neighbor to burn wood instead of oil.”
With the prospect of more catastrophic weather events in Vermont’s future, it will be the responsibility of both farmers and local communities to ensure a safe and steady supply of locally grown food while remaining vigilant about the proper management of our waterways and floodplains.