Editorial: The legacy of Otter Creek

Thirty years ago, the Addison Independent reported and published a multi-part series on Lake Champlain water quality and how it was being negatively impacted by phosphorous run-off from agricultural and non-farm pollution. The story, which was written by Steven Rosenfeld, reported that if the state took immediate action to remedy the problem the lake might avoid serious consequences, but if no action were taken, such neglect would contribute towards its demise.

Thirty years later, the state is finally pursuing a quantifiable plan to reduce what has been a growing amount of phosphorus pollution pouring into Lake Champlain. We pick up this story in the first of a three-part series in today’s Addison Independent, with a particular focus on the role played by the Otter CreekVermont’s longest river (and one of the few that flows south to north) and a stream that has been vital to the development of Addison County.

The news is not good.

First, the problem is much greater than what scientists thought 30 years ago. Second, the amount of phosphorus pollution is so great that even reducing it 25 percent still means Vermont would be pumping 418 metric tons of phosphorous into Lake Champlain each year — down from its current 630.5 metric tons annually. And that’s just from Vermont. New York and Quebec add another 290 metric tons per year.

Making matters worse, phosphorus stays in the environment until something uses it up. Legacy phosphorus is in the land, particularly throughout the farmland of Addison County, compiled from a hundred-plus years of using fertilizers to grow corn and other grains. When combined with nitrogen (taken from its abundance in the atmosphere), the deadly blue-green algae forms (see sidebar on Page 12A), creating a kind of super villain with infinite powers that makes it almost impossible (so far) to control.

In short, we’ve created a cesspool of algae-forming plumes that will be difficult to reverse.

It’s a problem long in the making. Since the early founders along the Otter Creek back in the 1700s the creek has had a mixed legacy: one, initially of natural beauty and cherished by native Americans, that has since been harnessed for its hydro power to fuel the early grist mills, and later by an agricultural industry that farmed along its fertile shores, depositing heavy amounts of phosphorus-laden fertilizers to grow bumper crops of corn. Commerce and industry also sprung up on the banks of the Otter Creek in Rutland, Proctor, Brandon, Middlebury and Vergennes, carrying with it the residues of industrial, residential and commercial waste before emptying into Porter Bay on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain.

Like so much of the history of pollution, the damage being done to the Otter Creek and Lake Champlain was not recognized for far too long. But even when it was known that something had to be done, it took far too long to devise an action plan — and, arguably, even today’s plan is not enough.

As Angie Allen, the current planner for the Otter Creek Basin, told our reporter Emma Cotton for today’s story: “We can have the sense of urgency and do everything right from here forward, but we may never be able, in our lifetime, to document lower phosphorus levels in Lake Champlain.”

That is a stunning statement. Like the fight against climate change, the damage done is so severe that it will take generations to reverse the ill effects, if indeed that is possible. For now, the operating premise is to reduce the amount of harm we are causing, in the hopes that some day (through perhaps other means) we’ll find a way to compensate and restore a better balance to the lake.

In thinking about the Otter Creek’s role in this story, the image was reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s children’s book, The Giving Tree, about a tree that gave to a boy, and to the man that boy would become until it was but a stump, at which time the old man sat against it for support. The Otter Creek has been like that to many who have used its resources, though hopefully it can be revived with more prudent management.

We start this series with a review of the creek’s history and the extent of the current problem. Part 2 will review Vermont’s 2015 Clean Water Act and how that applies to the Otter Creek’s 2019 Basin Plan, which is due for public discussion on Oct. 1 of this year. In the third part, we’ll look at the particular onus the plan to clean up Lake Champlain puts on Addison County farmers and what it means to them.

The goal is not to point fingers of blame, but to bring awareness to the problem and what can be done about it. The story is lengthy, at about 12,000 words over the three parts, not including graphics, photos and illustrations, but it paints an interesting, and intimate, story about the Otter Creek — a treasure in its own right, and worth knowing about if we are going to salvage and protect it (and other county streams) for future generations.

We encourage you to click off the TV, tune out the Internet, and silence your phone for about 30 minutes each Thursday or Friday over the next three weeks and read this local story. You’ll learn something about your backyard you didn’t know, and knowledge spurs hope in our collective ability to work toward a resolution, even if the going is long and hard.

Angelo Lynn

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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100