Lake Champlain, Science and Solutions, Part 1

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(Host) Consider a few of the numbers for Lake Champlain.

The total spent so far by the state’s Clean and Clear program: $85 million dollars.

Total improvement in lake water quality: Virtually zero.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Governor Jim Douglas had promised a cleaner lake to celebrate next year’s 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s exploration of the lake that bears his name.

VPR’s John Dillon has the first of two reports on Lake Champlain science and solutions.

(Stangel) "Okay, we’re going to going to head up to station 51, it’s about three miles.." engine accelerates.. run engine sound under…

(Dillon) Every few days in the summer, Pete Stangel steers a boat out on the water to take the temperature and check the health of Lake Champlain.

(boat runs, then slows, anchor chain rattles and drops into the water)

(Dillon) We drop anchor near the Canadian border, in northern Missisquoi Bay. Stangel lowers a black and white Frisbee like plate into the water. It’s called a Secchi disk, and it’s used to measure water clarity – or in this case, water murkiness.

(Turbid) A little more turbid here. We had 2.3 at the other station. This is 1.8. …

(Dillon) That means the disk disappears from sight one-point-eight meters down – a sign that the bay is clouded by sediment and algae.

Stangel is an aquatic biologist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. The measurements he and others collect are used to see if the lake is getting cleaner or dirtier.

There’s bad news in all that data. Decades of research shows that much of the lake is not improving. Some of it is even getting worse.

(Stangel) Take a look at this sample, those visible blue green algae balls are called Gleotrichia

(Dillon) In a southern section of the bay, Stangel finds a tiny organism that causes big problems in the lake.

Here, in late summer, the blue green algae often form a thick green scum. The tens of millions of organisms are fed by the rich flow of nutrients that wash off the land.

(Stangel) They usually occur late August and September. Two years ago it started in late July, or even late June here. It was terrible, really bad bloom.

(Dillon) The explosive growth of blue green algae in the lake’s northern bays is the most visible sign that we’re not winning the expensive battle against pollution.

It’s a battle that’s important for the tourism economy. Thousands of visitors head to the lake each summer. More are expected next year to join the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s voyage of exploration.

A clean lake also protects public health. Blue green algae produce a poison, so swimming near the blooms is dangerous for people and animals. When the blooms are bad, beaches are closed and resorts are forced to warn people out of the water.

There’s a good government issue as well. Taxpayers want programs that work. But a recent independent audit of the state’s Clean and Clear program said despite the millions of dollars spent, there’s little progress to date.

But the lake’s ecosystem is complex, and clean up has proved to be neither quick nor easy.

(Smeltzer) I think all of us involved in research and management on Lake Champlain with the phosphorus issue were expecting a quicker response to the efforts that took place

(Dillon) Eric Smeltzer has studied lake issues for 28 years at the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

On a recent rainy morning at his Waterbury office, Smeltzer tells the story of St. Albans Bay.

Like Missisquoi Bay to the north, St. Albans Bay has way too much phosphorus, the nutrient that feeds the algae blooms.

At first the problem seemed relatively straightforward. Environmental officials hoped the blooms would subside if the phosphorus was reduced.

But Smeltzer says that even after phosphorus inputs were cut by 90 percent to St. Albans Bay through controls on a sewage treatment plant, the water quality didn’t get any better. And phosphorus levels in the water of the bay stayed very high.

(Smeltzer) We’ve all had a dose of the hard reality, of just how hard it is, and how long it may take, to bring about the reductions in the lake.

(Dillon) But why is the big question. The answer seems to be in the mud.

(Smeltzer) We did some research to try to figure out what was going on, and what we found was that there’s a tremendous amount of phosphorus in the sediments of the bay that’s just being recycled back into the water, especially in mid-summer conditions, which is the worst time to have it to happen. And there’s enough phosphorus in that sediment to keep it algae ridden into the foreseeable future.

(Dillon) Smeltzer explains that controlling phosphorus starts on the land – in the huge watershed that feeds the lake. But many of the efforts to cut phosphorus run off take years to yield results. One common technique is to plant trees or vegetation to prevent stream banks from eroding and releasing phosphorus into the water.

(Smeltzer) Of course it takes a few years for vegetation to grow up and function. And then in big river systems it can take a long time for phosphorus to work its way down. And in the lake itself, the sediments have kind of a memory for past abuse, and they can recycle the phosphorus back in the water for a long time. That’s what’s happening in St. Albans Bay for example,

(Dillon) The slow pace of progress doesn’t satisfy environmentalists, who argue that Vermont needs to do much more to control phosphorus pollution.

(Dillon) Mike Rapacz guides a small outboard near where the Winooski River flows into the broad lake. The water here is muddy and coffee colored.

(Rapacz) It’s always a little bit brown in the Winooski because of all the ag land and all the discharges, but this is definitely the result of several hard rains, relatively close together.

(Dillon) Rapacz is a hydro-geologist who spent years managing estuary clean up programs for the state of Massachusetts. He now works as a science consultant for the Conservation Law Foundation.

Rapacz and his organization are unsatisfied with the pace of Lake Champlain clean up. Rapacz says a recent report by the federally funded Lake Champlain Basin Program highlight his concerns. The report says no lake sections have shown improvement.

(Rapacz) If you look at the new 2008 State of the Lake report, there are, I believe, four of the 12 lake segments that show — I think they phrase it — as continued deterioration, and eight of the 12 they describe as neither deteriorating, nor improving. So overall, there’s kind of a net decrease in health for the lake, unfortunately.

(Dillon) The report says that the northeast bays of the lake exceed limits for phosphorus – which may means more algae blooms and more closed beaches. Mallet’s Bay in Vermont and Port Henry on the New York side are also getting worse.

But perhaps most disturbing is that the main lake – the part that holds 80 percent of the water – also exceeds phosphorus targets.

(Rapacz) It’s large, it’s deep, it’s broad, and still we’re not meeting the phosphorus concentration … So it appears to be in good shape, because you’re don’t see many visible blue green algae outbreaks. But we’re not meeting our standard… We’re still not meeting it, as we’re not for many of our lake segments.

(Dillon) Rapacz says the state – and the public in general – need to step up efforts to clean up the lake. He’s calling for a ten-fold increase in spending.

He admits that an $850 million dollars is a very big number. But Rapacz says the work, and the expense, would be spread out over 20 or 30 years.

(Rapacz) That doesn’t seem like much when you consider that this lake – this beautiful lake – brings in about $1.5 billion in lake-related activities each year.

(Dillon) Rapacz would spend the money on stormwater controls and many other measures. The most controversial proposal is to retrofit sewage treatment plants in the watershed to reduce more phosphorus. The cost for that piece could be $60 million spread out over 20 years.

But the Douglas Administration and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns balked at the cost.

State officials say it makes more sense to go after non-point phosphorus pollution – the kind that runs off farm fields and streets – rather than squeeze the last drop from sewage treatment plants.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

Click here to read Part 2 of John Dillon’s report

AP Photo/Courtesy of Larry Dupont

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