Sewage in lakes and waterways

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(Host) Clean water is a problem worldwide these days. Commentator Ruth Page reminds us that we can be glad Vermont is ready to spend money to protect Lake Champlain and its other watery treasures.

(Page) Nowadays, Vermonters around the state, and in New York and Quebec, are fighting pollution of Lake Champlain: there’s Mississquoi Bay, the adoptive home of vast colonies of blue-green algae that give rise to toxic algae blooms; there are many smaller bays along the lake. They lose their swimmable water when winds are still and natural detritus smears the slick surfaces; there are Invader Weeds clogging narrow areas.

How many people realize that concern about lake cleanliness is comparatively recent? When I moved to Vermont from Pennsylvania in 1945, even Vermont’s biggest city didn’t have a sewage treatment plant, never mind worrying about all the picnic trash and other debris bouncing about on Champlain’s waves.

Burlington’s city fathers decided that if the town was going to live up to its title of “Queen City,” it must stop polluting the lake. So in 1952 they put a proposal for a primary treatment sewage plant before the voters. They turned it down as too expensive. On a second try, they said “no” again.

Members of the League of Women Voters were incensed by this. Their studies showed that raw sewage dumped into Lake Champlain was becoming increasingly disgusting — and dangerous.
Being practical women, they took basic steps. They talked to various merchants on Church Street. They said, “If we collect Lake Champlain water in bottles, would you be willing to display them in your show windows, so shoppers can see the filth?” Most of the merchants were happy to cooperate.

League members who lived along the Lake or had access to it waded out into the water with their empty peanut-butter or mayonnaise jars and scooped up jarsful of Lake Champlain water. They carried them downtown and put them into merchants’ windows with information about the source. You could see sewage and other filth floating in the bottles.

That did it. In 1953, Burlington’s first primary sewage treatment plant was complete. The improvement was visible. and people became more conscious of the problem. The North End plant was built in 1958 and the Riverside Avenue plant in 1963. Today all three provide secondary treatment. The main plant has taken further steps to control phosphorus, and to handle storm water.

In time, more and more towns and cities nationwide showed concern about filth in their waterways — streams as well as lakes. Laws were passed requiring sewage treatment. Later, so were laws to control other sources of pollution. Progress continues, but, as we know, there are many other pollutants to conquer. Algae thrive on nutrients like phosphorus that pour into waterways from roads, towns and farms. There is still plenty to do.

This is Ruth Page.

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