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Pollution in Lake Champlain, Part 1: After millions in cost, where's the benefit?

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Posted on July 15, 2010 |
By Kathryn Flagg



Editor’s note: With frustration brewing about the amount being spent on Lake Champlain clean-up efforts — and the apparent lack of results in better water quality — the Addison Independent set out to understand the complicated discussion about water quality in Vermont, with a focus on the agricultural industry often pinpointed as a main culprit in lake pollution.

In the first article in this three-part series, we take a wide-angle look at the current status of river and lake water quality in the region. Next, we’ll head to Addison County’s farms to investigate the role agriculture plays in water degradation, and the complicated debate playing out about farmers’ responsibility for cleaning up waterways. In the third installment, we look ahead to what’s on the horizon for clean up efforts in the Lake Champlain basin.

ADDISON COUNTY — After 10 years and roughly $100 million in public investments, the quality of Lake Champlain’s ailing waters remains all but unchanged.

Though a statistical study released in June by two scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey showed slight decreases in the amount of phosphorus entering the lake — down by between one and three percent in places — frustration is brewing among residents and environmentalists who say too little is being done to clean up Lake Champlain. High levels of phosphorus and other nutrients, washed into the lake in the form of runoff from agricultural, urban and suburban sites, are leading to excess plant growth, decreased water quality, and decaying plant matter that over time can turn a once-clear lake into a boggy marshland (at least in its shallower sections).

Last week, as heat waves swept through the region, the Vermont Department of Health issued advisories for blue-green algae in Lake Champlain, some of which can produce natural toxins or poisons. The advisory warned swimmers, boaters, pet owners and other lake users to avoid the toxic algae, which is considered by many a symptom of poor water quality.

Meanwhile, the price tag for the lake clean up project is mounting, fast: A new report released last winter by the state said Lake Champlain clean up efforts could cost $800 million over the next 15 years.

But finding a culprit for the languishing state of Vermont’s rivers and lakes is easier said than done. Just three percent of the runoff into Lake Champlain comes from identifiable “point” sources like wastewater treatment plants or factories, according to Julie Moore, the director of the state’s “Clean and Clear” plan to clean up the lake.

The remaining 97 percent, Moore said, comes from nonpoint sources — meaning locations all over the watershed, ranging from farms to front yards to highway and road runoff. Roughly half of that runoff comes from agricultural sources, and the other half from urban and suburban development.

Outspoken critics say farmers and agricultural leaders in Vermont are still to blame for dragging their feet in making significant changes.

Farmers and farm advocates, on the other hand, say farmers have made tremendous strides to correct practices that contribute to water pollution, and that the agricultural industry is too easily pinpointed as the scapegoat in lake pollution. (Look for the second article in this three-part series on Monday, July 19 for a closer look at this debate.)

It’s a debate without easy answers — though one thing remains clear. Despite a massive influx of public money, and a push for agricultural reforms, little progress has been made over the last decade to stanch the flow of nutrients like phosphorus into the lake.

The good news, local water watchers say, is that increasing amounts of locally gathered data is painting a clearer picture of where water quality is being degraded.

The bad news?

So far, not many people are paying attention.

WATER QUALITY IN ADDISON COUNTY

Salisbury resident Heidi Willis has been monitoring water quality in some of Addison County’s rivers for around 20 years. It started when she was a member of the Otter Creek Audubon Society; a high school teacher made the pitch that the Audubon bird-watchers should track pollution along the Otter Creek, and Willis and a few other members rallied to the call. She began making regular trips to collect water samples for the burgeoning Otter Creek River Watch.

Now, she’s part of the Addison County River Watch Collaborative, a group of residents from around the county who once a month wade into the rivers and streams near their homes to test some of important parameters that determine water quality in the local waterways: phosphorus, nitrogen, Escherichia coli (E. coli) and suspended sediments.

When she first got started, Willis said, the extent of pollution in Lake Champlain hadn’t yet become clear, and the river watchers were most concerned about E. coli counts. In high numbers the presence of E. coli typically indicates the possibility of fecal contamination, often from livestock.

“The farmers used to get a really bad rep, but a lot of them have really done a lot of work to change their practices,” Willis said.

Farmers began fencing off waterways, and some incorporated more buffer zones along streams and rivers. The E. coli counts in some places began to drop. But it’s not clear that those changes have had wide-ranging effects. According to data collected in 2008 by the river waters, E. coli is still a problem in the region: The Middlebury River, for instance, is listed by the state of Vermont as unsuitable for swimming in several areas because of high E. coli contamination from agricultural runoff.

It’s not an isolated instance. E. coli counts along portions of the Lemon Fair, Otter Creek, Little Otter Creek and Lewis Creek also exceed state standards.

In the wake of intensified research into pollution in Lake Champlain, water specialists are increasingly paying attention to the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Champlain.

Though it is a naturally occurring plant nutrient, phosphorus is generally considered to be the major nutrient responsible for stimulating the growth of algae and aquatic plants in Lake Champlain. Environmentalists hope that limiting the amount of phosphorus (present in manure and fertilizers) that drains into the lake could improve water quality.

According to the Addison County River Watch Collaborative, phosphorus loads in nearly all of the county’s monitored waterways — including Otter Creek, Lemon Fair River, Middlebury River, Little Otter Creek, Mud Creek and Lewis Creek — exceed state standards set for Lake Champlain. (Only the New Haven River shows phosphorus concentrations that are generally low.)

The reasons differ by location: The collaborative has identified farm runoff as the primary culprit for the “extremely high” levels of phosphorus in the Lemon Fair. Along other rivers, like the Otter Creek, erosion seems to be the source of most phosphorus; erosion can occur during activities like development and building, high water events, and cropping, when farmers plow up land to plant corn.

IN DENIAL

Local river watchers are divided on just how much has changed since data collection ramped up over the past two decades. Willis, for one, thinks the wider public seems to understand that good water quality can’t be taken for granted. She thinks many Vermonters used to be of the mind that “(water quality is) the farmers’ problem,” but she thinks that attitude has dissipated.

“This kind of stuff is for the long haul,” Willis said. “The more education you have, the more people that you have on board, the better.”

Another member of the river watch collaborative takes a less optimistic view.

Marty Illick is the executive director of the Lewis Creek Association. Like Willis, she’s been monitoring water quality in the region for around 20 years.

Unlike Willis, though, she isn’t noticing any major shifts — in water quality or attitudes.

“The problems are still the same problems. There may be little reaches, little portions of the river that have improved, but the whole watershed and what’s going into the lake has not significantly improved,” Illick said.

There is good news.

Groups like the river watch collaborative, in their dedicated, detailed collection of data over a long period of time, are beginning to paint a picture of watershed “neighborhoods.” Unlike state monitoring efforts, which measure parameters like phosphorus at the mouth of a river, the river watchers can pinpoint what’s happening at specific places in the watershed.

“We’ve got the data,” Illick said. “The knowledge is more dramatic, and more telling.”

In fact, Illick said the Lewis Creek Association has been able to go to specific farmers or property owners, point to the data, and show how their land practices are adversely affecting the river. The result, she said, is often, “What? It couldn’t be me.”

But even the data, without public interest and political leadership, falls short.

“To be honest, I don’t even think residents think about water quality. It’s not even on their radar,” Illick said. “When they look at the landscape, they don’t see little rivers flowing down hills. It’s just not something that registers that deeply when they look at the landscape. People are pretty fast moving in their lifestyles.”

Kathryn Flagg can be reached at kathryn.flagg@gmail.com. The Addison Independent newsroom is at news@addisonindependent.com.

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