MIDDLEBURY — A severe algae problem is poisoning the nation’s sixth largest body of water.
Blooms of the toxic blue-green organism growing in Lake Champlain are essentially large, poisonous colonies of photosynthetic bacteria that are caused by high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients. According to the Vermont Department of Health, algae-contaminated water in the lake led to the deaths of two dogs in 1999 and 2000.
A sea of more than 100 citizens, lawmakers and public officials debated how to fix Lake Champlain’s pollution problems at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater on May 9 after a screening of the Emmy-nominated documentary “Bloom: The Plight of Lake Champlain.”
Narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper and directed, produced and written by Emmy-award winning writer and producer Victor Guadagno of Montpelier, this new documentary highlights the increasing problem of Lake Champlain’s toxic blue-green algae blooms, which are generally identifiable by their fluorescent green or blue-green color and their thick, lentil soup-like consistency. The event, which was sponsored by the Addison County Relocalization Network and others, provided community members with an opportunity to learn more about an environmental hazard hitting close to home and discuss courses of action.
“Bloom,” the first production of the educational nonprofit BrightBlue EcoMedia, attributes the lake’s algae problem to three main sources: storm water, agricultural runoff and aging municipal water treatment facilities. The film explains that these three sources have led to an abundance of phosphorus in the lake.
To reduce the overall quantity of phosphorus and improve water quality, the federal Clean Water Act required the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to establish a maximum level of phosphorus that can safely flow into the lake. In 2002, this line was established at 427.1 metric tons per year. This safety threshold is referred to as the TMDL or Total Maximum Daily Load.
Louis Porter, Lake Champlain lakekeeper at the Conservation Law Foundation, explained that the actual amount of phosphorus dumped into the lake varies considerably from year to year. But, he added, “It is consistently well over 427.1 metric tons and it frequently doubles or sometimes much more than doubles that.”
And the recent flooding has only made matters worse.
“The severe flooding and rain this year have likely made the phosphorous pollution problem for the lake significantly worse,” he said. “Violent weather means we must make sure there is more capacity to absorb and deal with runoff and increased water flow or we will get more phosphorous pollution from all of the major sources.”
Since Vermont has persistently loaded more phosphorous than the safety threshold into the lake, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disapproved the state’s TMDL late this past January. While EPA disapproval indicates that Vermont is failing to meet federal phosphorus standards, it also means that the EPA is reaching out a helping hand.
“Please do not consider this disapproval an indictment of the good work the state and other entities have been engaged in to restore Lake Champlain,” said EPA Regional Administrator Curtis Spalding in a January letter to the Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deborah Markowitz. “We see opportunities to ultimately build and further strengthen the restoration work under way in the Lake Champlain basin.”
The BrightBlue EcoMedia group also seeks to help improve the situation. The group is comprised of “Bloom” producer Guadagno; Jon Erickson, managing director for the University of Vermont Gund Institute for Economics; Amy Seidl, an author and UVM assistant professor; and Ben Falk, a farmer and director of Whole System Design Inc.
The half-hour-long “Bloom” is the first part of a larger documentary. It explains the problem; the meat of the story will address the solution. Guadagno and company have taken to the road to talk with people about the future of Lake Champlain and how to protect it.
As part of this investigation, the group held a long, extensive conversation after the film screening last Monday.
“Solutions are about communication, so we really want to bring people together and realize that this is a collective problem,” said Guadagno.
SOLVING ISSUES TOGETHER
Legislators, residents and town officials all waded into this issue, and their solutions ranged from composting toilets to better confining agricultural nutrients to improving political oversight.
Ron Slabaugh of Middlebury pointed to his composting toilet to explain that such methods of waste management can cut tax dollars spent on waste treatment, reduce energy use and eliminate the risk of a waste treatment malfunction, like the 2.5 million gallons of storm water and untreated sewage that dumped into Lake Champlain in Burlington last month due to a system failure.
Bridport farmer Ben Gleason acknowledged that many farmers in Addison County contribute to the brown waters rushing into the lake after a storm. He explained that when soil is left uncovered, without the protection of crops, nutrients like phosphorus are prone to washing into the watershed.
“I wonder what would happen … if we first tried to enforce the laws that are on the books?” asked former state Rep. John Freidin of Charlotte. “The part that I would urge the makers of this film to consider is politics. I’d like them to look at whether the laws are being enforced. … I doubt that anything will happen unless there is serious political pressure.”
State Sen. Harold Giard, D-Addison County and Brandon, pledged the state’s financial commitment to addressing the problem.
“We’ve spent $100 million so far on this issue,” he said. “We’ve got $8 million in capital construction going into wastewater treatment just in the next year and $2.7 million in agriculture, so there are steps that the Legislature is taking.”
Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, who grew up on the lake, commended the filmmakers for bringing the lake’s pollution problem front and center, but he had reservations about how people will react.
“This is a problem that we’ve all created and we all need to address,” said Ross. “What I’m fearful about with this movie … (is that) there’s an invitation to start finger pointing … and we really all need to look in the mirror and understand that we’re all a part of this very complicated ecosystem and a very complicated economy that ties us all together to this lake … there’s not a silver bullet here.
“This is a problem that did not begin yesterday,” Ross added. “It’s a problem that began when we first started clearing the land and it was exacerbated when we were the fourth-largest lumber port in the world and we clear-cut the forests of this state and it’s been added to ever since.”
Guadagno said he thought the post-film conversation was civil and productive.
“It’s great that people recognize that this is not a unique problem to Vermont. It’s a national, certainly global problem,” he said on Tuesday in a conversation with the Independent. “To have people from our government and community all present and talking together, recognizing that it’s a collective problem and that we have to come together (is vital).
“If we’re going to address this and other ecological and economic problems, we’re going to have to do it as a group, and I think that was demonstrated last night.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at email@example.com.