• Weekly Planet: We have the tools to clean up Lake Champlain
    June 01,2014
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    Photo by Eric Bessette

    Lake Champlain is seen from the air at the spot where Addison is connected by bridge to Crown Point, New York. Environmentalists say it’s not too late to restore the lake to a clean waterway.
    As a kid, a highlight of my summers was spending time in and around Lake Champlain. It still is. A summer is simply not complete without at least one dip in the lake, a ferry trip across to New York, camping or biking along its shores and a visit to one of the many beaches.

    Over the years, it has been painful to see the lake’s water quality degrade. Last fall the thick green algae covering one of the bays kept me from a last swim on a warm day. The empty boats, beach and raft nearby lay abandoned — sad reminders of what was once a great source of joy but no longer inviting.

    I fear that Vermont’s crown jewel and the nation’s sixth-largest body of fresh water is rapidly heading the way of many other waterways — perhaps nice to observe from a boat, but not suitable for fishing, swimming or drinking.

    But I remember stories from my parents’ generation of how many rivers in Vermont once ran the color of the dye the local mill used that day. In those days raw sewage and farm waste were sent directly to rivers and lakes, fouling the water for everyone.

    Then in 1969 we as nation witnessed the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catch fire, and we decided that this sort of pollution was not acceptable. We passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, a far-reaching federal law that calls for the cleanup of our nation’s waterways.

    We still have a ways to go to achieve the cleanup envisioned by the Clean Water Act. As Lake Champlain gets dirtier every year, I can’t help but think we’ve lost our resolve.

    Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. The same tools that allowed us to stem the raw sewage and industrial waste also can be used to restore Lake Champlain to a clean waterway welcoming anyone to dive in.

    The Clean Water Act calls for identifying pollution sources and then cutting back on the pollution they add to waterways. It sounds simple. But as the past decade’s legal and policy wrangling shows, it is not always easy. When pollution comes from many sources, it is far too tempting for each contributor to point the finger at someone else.

    The algae blooms in Lake Champlain are caused by excess nutrients, mostly phosphorus, that come from wastewater treatment plants, failed septic systems, runoff from roads, parking lots and farm fields — and poor manure management at farms. This means controls are necessary to stop the nutrient pollution from all these sources.

    Under direction from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and after years of legal battles to force the cleanup of the lake, Vermont set new mandatory pollution control targets. These require dramatically reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants, farms and paved areas.

    But a target alone is not enough. The tools in the Clean Water Act can ensure we stop pointing fingers and instead take action. Effective measures must include:

    Broader regulation of stormwater runoff. Vermont can expand existing regulatory programs to include managing runoff from town and city roadways, and can require private commercial developments to be accountable for the pollution that flows off their properties.

    Reducing farm pollution. Requiring fencing to keep cows and other livestock out of streams prevents direct pollution impacts. Creating buffers along streams can minimize runoff near fields. Reducing ditching and allowing water to flow more slowly cuts back on erosion after rainstorms. Careful enforcement can reduce overuse of fertilizers that feed algae instead of plants.

    Upgrading outdated sewage treatment plants. Vermont is out of step with other areas in our region. We have the technology to remove more nutrients from our wastewater plants, and we should expect our cities and towns to use available modern technologies to keep our water clean.

    Restoring Lake Champlain now will leave a lake far cleaner for future generations. Common-sense solutions should not be beyond our reach or our resolve.

    Sandra Levine is a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier and can be reached at slevine@clf.org.
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