Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2018VT91B

Governing water quality limits in agricultural watersheds: Farmer behavior and perceptions under Vermont

Institute: Vermont
Year Established: 2018 Start Date: 2018-03-01 End Date: 2019-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $6,615 Total Non-Federal Funds: $11,379

Principal Investigators: Asim Zia, Courtney HammondWagner

Abstract: Problem: In the state of Vermont, nonpoint source phosphorus pollution is the predominant cause of poor water quality in freshwater lakes and streams, including Vermont’s jewel: Lake Champlain. Deteriorating water quality in Lake Champlain over many decades has led to seasonal algal blooms, beach closures, social and economic impacts for lakeside communities, and a federal mandate to improve water quality. As a result, the state passed comprehensive water quality policy in 2015: Act 64 the Vermont Clean Water Act. Because agriculture is the largest source of nonpoint source pollution in the state, a challenge for the new legislation is to enable the adoption of water quality practices on farms to decrease phosphorus runoff from agricultural lands. While there is a good understanding of the management changes required to reduce nutrient runoff, less is known about the social, economic and political dynamics that govern nutrient management land use decision on farms. This sets up a critical water resources need for the state: to reduce nonpoint source pollution in the Lake Champlain Basin, we need to better understand how policy shapes farmer adoption of water quality practices. Methods: This proposed research will utilize qualitative interview methods to examine farmer adoption of nutrient management strategies in a case study of the innovative Act 64 mixed voluntary/mandatory policy regime in the Lake Champlain Basin. To examine the impact of Act 64 on farmer behavior, we have selected a subset of agricultural watersheds in the Basin that face high and moderate phosphorus reductions from agriculture: the Missisquoi watershed and Lamoille watershed, respectively. Data collection will consist of semi-structured interviews with an estimated 30 farms and 10 key policy informants. Participants will be selected using purposeful maximum variation sampling to represent the diversity of experiences of farmers in each of the watersheds. Interviews will be recorded, transcribed and analyzed. The content analysis will employ Elinor Ostrom’s Social-ecological Systems (SES) framework as a theoretical basis from which to identify individual farmer mental models of nutrient management in the watershed, including drivers and perceived outcomes. Mental models will then be analyzed and compared to identify trends, lessons learned and barriers to adoption. Objectives: The proposed research seeks to provide concrete data on policy impact to Vermont water resource practitioners and improve our understanding of farmer nutrient management decisions to improve water quality. This research will examine the functioning and effectiveness of agricultural nonpoint source pollution policy in the Lake Champlain Basin through the lens of farmers’ individual experiences. This will be achieved through four study objectives. First, this study will document the spectrum of nutrient management practices in use through interviewing a diverse set of farmers and farm systems in the two study watersheds (objective 1). Second, we will use the drivers and perceived outcomes identified in objective 1 to construct farmer mental models of nutrient management decisions (objective 2). Then, we will analyze these mental models to identify trends within the broader watershed system including policy impacts and barriers to adoption (objective 3). Finally, we will use research briefs and public presentations to disseminate and discuss these results with the farming community, policy makers and water quality practitioners (objective 4). Ultimately, this project seeks to improve water quality in the state of Vermont through evaluating current efforts to reduce agricultural runoff and identifying effective policy tools that enable farmers to make management and land use changes.