Lake Champlain Water Quality Gets Worse As Summer Winds Down

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A bad summer for water quality in Lake Champlain seems to be getting worse.

Over the past week, hot weather, low water levels and a huge bloom of blue green algae have combined to cause a massive fish kill in Missisquoi Bay.

The waves lapping on the east shore of the bay are a strange, turquoise teal color. They’re thick with blue green algae.

Darren Defoe has lived here all his life, but he’s only launched his boat once in the past few months. He’s outside on the dock with his family listening to music, but he’s not going in the water.

"Me and my stepfather used to test this water and send it the state of Vermont, back 25 year ago when it was just speckles of the green. And look at it now," he says.

Out in the bay, a catfish floats belly up. Overhead, sea gulls and turkey vultures circle, looking for a free meal. The blue green algae release a toxin that can sicken people and pets. Defoe says he can’t remember a worse year for water quality.

"Here, we are. We live in Vermont; we live on a lake," he says. "We pay high tax to have yuck, and stink. You don’t even want to sit outside anymore."

Just over the border in Phillipsburg, Quebec, the rocky beach is littered with hundreds of dead fish of all shapes and sizes. The bodies of small perch and alewives are mixed with carp and large mouth bass. According to a report in the Montreal Gazette, thousands of fish began washing up on the Canadian shoreline a week ago.

Louis Porter, who works as Lakekeeper for the Conservation Law Foundation, says the fish are victims of the algae bloom.

"Almost certainly what happened here was a blue green algae bloom so large and so dense that the fish couldn’t swim out of it, and it killed them," he says.

Porter says when the mats of algae die; the bacteria that feed on them use up oxygen, leading to a dead zone in Missisquoi Bay.

"I’m not aware of another time there’s been a fish kill this large along Lake Champlain," he says.

Porter says Lake Champlain is usually big enough for fish to swim away from the oxygen-deprived water. But this year the blooms were too widespread for the fish to escape.

The blue green algae blooms are fueled by phosphorus flowing into the lake from farm fields, sewage treatment plants and stormwater run-off. The record spring floods of 2011, followed by Tropical Storm Irene, washed even more phosphorus from the land into the water.

University of Vermont fisheries biologist Ellen Marsden says the lake’s shallow bays are also affected by high temperatures and low water levels. Warmer water holds less oxygen. When the whole bay is warm and oxygen starved, the fish have no where to go.

"It’s habitat," Marsden says. "I mean the whole bay – none of the bay gets any deeper than about 7 meters. And so it’s deoxygenated pretty much from the bottom up."

Marsden says sporadic fish kills are not that unusual in the summer. She says the increased phosphorous combined with this year’s low lake level makes a bad situation worse.

"There’s no question that sort of anthropogenic changes like phosphorus nutrient inputs will make it worse," she says. "And then tied in with the low lake level this year, that’s just unfortunate."

For Darren Defoe, the pollution means his seven year old son can’t wade in the water during the heat of the summer. He says everyone who contributes to the pollution – from farmers to sewage treatment plants, to camp owners with defective septic systems – has to help.

"You’re fertilizing the lake to make the bloom come fast, just like you’re fertilizing your field to make it grow fast," he says. "You know what I’m saying? It’s crazy."

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