Lake Champlain cleanup is lagging
By MADELEINE MAY KUNIN | April 26,2007
It was a beautiful blue-sky day 20 years ago when I convened a meeting with New York Governor Cuomo and Quebec Premiere Bourassa on a boat in the calm waters of Lake Champlain to sign a document intended to protect our shared lake. We were all intent on doing the right thing because we knew then, as we do now, that the lake is a precious resource that deserved protection.
I wish I could say we succeeded. Unfortunately, the lake is in worse condition today than it was then. Pat Parenteau, who was commissioner of environmental conservation when I was governor, told a Senate committee recently, "The northern bays of the lake are cesspools. They are toxic. They are dangerous."
How could this happen? The lake is plagued with algae blooms in the north and choked with weeds in the south. The villain? Phosphorous.
I recall that we passed a ban on phosphorous in detergents in 1977. It was a controversial bill, hotly debated, and when it passed, we thought we had won a major achievement. What we did not know was that dishwasher detergent, was largely exempt. The Legislature is closing that loophole this year, effective 2010, which will help, but is far from the total answer.
Phosphorous is pouring into the lake in ever-greater quantities, in part because of increased development. Forty-three thousand acres have been lost to development in the Champlain Valley drainage basin alone, between 1992 and 2001. Development means more parking lots and suburban lawns, which translates into more pollution.
Considering that close to $50 million have been spent on lake cleanup programs in recent years, we should be able to see results. Sadly, that's not the case.
It's time to re-evaluate what we are doing and chart a new course to save Lake Champlain. The Vermont Senate recently passed a bill that would rewrite the phosphorous reduction plan for the lake, recalculating how many tons of phosphorous pollution must be reduced.
In addition, the bill targets phosphorous reduction dollars to those areas that are suffering the most and will conduct an independent audit of the progress of Gov. Jim Douglas' "Clean and Clear Action Plan" which has spent most of the state and federal money.
The bill was voted favorably out of a Senate committee and appears to have wide support. Its passage is imperative. It is not enough to talk about cleaning up Lake Champlain. It's not enough to spend money to clean up Lake Champlain. We have to set higher standards and pass tougher laws than we once had thought necessary, and we have to monitor the results every step of the way. This time, if we are to protect beautiful Lake Champlain, an incomparable resource for two countries and two states, we have to get it right.
Madeleine May Kunin was governor of Vermont from 1985 to 1991.