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Cover detail: 2012 State of the Lake Report from the Lake Champlain Basin Program
Cover detail: 2012 State of the Lake Report from the Lake Champlain Basin Program

State of the Lake: new report investigates water quality and health of Lake Champlain

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Every few years the Lake Champlain Basin Program publishes a "state of the lake" report, detailing environmental quality in Lake Champlain. This year's report came out last week.

It says that while the overall health of the main lake is good, certain areas, like the Northeast arm and Missisquoi Bay, have higher levels of phosphorus pollution and algae blooms. Sarah Harris spoke with Bill Howland, director of the Basin Program, about the report.

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Harris: In the course of writing this report, what did you find were the biggest challenges to lake health over the next few years?

There are three areas of real challgenge. One of them of course is the phosphorus concentrations. In the lake there is just too much phosphorus. That's a nutrient that comes off the landscape. That's the biggest challenge to begin with. Then we have the problem of aquatic invasive species. And we've heard a lot about that lately with the discovery of spiny water flea in the Champlain Canal and Lake George. And that's a real, real problem: it's bigger than just the spiny water flea coming, it's a whole lof of invasive species that are trying to get in. I think the third thing on people's mind is algae blooms. And that's the impact of phosphorus you can actually see. And algae blooms are more common in Missisquoi Bay than in other parts of the lake, it can produce a toxin, sometimes it does, and that's a real public concern as well. 

Harris: This summer there have been beach closures for e.coli, for algae blooms, now there's the spiny water flea in the Champlain canal. It strikes me that people are worried about lake health. Is the status quo response really enough? Are we getting behind and losing substantial environmnetal quality in the lake? 

We have a higher awareness of the health of Lake Champlain this year than I've ever seen, largely because of the huge amount of damage and concern associated with flooding last year. Most people have had a hightened awareness of what a watershed is. So I think it's an important time to have a document come out like this, that says this is the state of Lake Champlain as we know it right now. 

Harris: You're the main spokespeople for environmental quality of the lake. Certainly this document is really comprehensive but I kind of wonder, is it akin to fiddling while Rome burns? Is turning out the document enough to result in action? 

Howland: Well, the quick answer is no. It's not enough. We can't be complacent just knowing the problem is very important because it helps us target our management activities and our efforts. But I think it's important to know that the state of Vermont or New York or Quebec of federal EPA or the Basin Program, all of us must work together to reduce pollution. But we're not going to go out there and clean up the lake. We don't get a mop and a bucket and go out there as the Basin Program and start cleaning up the lake. What we can do is help people throughout the basin change sometime about their lives so they reduce the amount of pollution they're responsible for in Lake Champlain. 

Harris: The report has these sections that are steps that people can take, and it's things like washing your car on the lawn or fertilizing less or planting a garden. Is that what's going to move the needle on this stuff or does there also need to be an institutional legal approach?

Howland: All of the above. It's going to take efforts on the part of governments for enforcement, it's going to take more collaboration, it's going to take more assistance to farmers who do need some assistance to help them implement best management practices, and it's going to take every homeowner. We really want to remind people that the ways to many of us relate to the lake is that we enjoy splashing in the water or sailing or driving by and looking at a beautiful lake or watching the sunset or whatever it might be. It's people who really care about the lake because they have a personal connection to it of that sort — those are the people who are going to be the best stewards of the lake, I'm sure. 

Harris: Is it politically feasable to do the kinds of things that need to be done? I mean last week we saw New York and Vermont going head to head over whether to close the canal, this most recent incentive program for farmers is voluntary . . . Is it possible in our political landscape to put actually through legislation to do what needs to be done? 

Howland: What it takes is a clearer understanding of what the problem is. How bad is it or how good is it. And that's actually one of the things that we're trying to accomplish with state of the lake. And it's something that should really be thoroughly understood by epople who are setting policy: these are the problems, these are the trends. We can show since 1990 of phosphorus concetrations. I hope this informs not just the homeowners or the residents in the basin but also the legislators and the selectboards and those who make policies and decisions. Is the town going to participate in a flood zone management plan or national flood insurance program? Or is the town going to use that particpation in the insurance program as kind of a license to develop willy nilly in harm's way? That's happened again and again, it's gotta not happen anymore. The best thing that we can do is provide the information in the state of the lake report that we hope tells it like it is so that people can understand what's at stake. If society wants to have better water quality it can! It just has to do it. Nobody's gonna do it for 'em. 



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