• It’s not too late to save Lake Champlain
    August 24,2014
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    Conservation Law Foundation photo

    Algae on Lake Champlain is caused by runoff carrying phosphorus into the shore waters.
    One sultry evening late last summer, my husband and I — ready for a cool swim in Lake Champlain — discovered firsthand the sad and maddening presence of blue-green algae in the lake on Burlington’s south shore.

    We were two of many unhappy, would-be swimmers and bathers that evening as we went away without a dip. We were all disturbed and disappointed by what we had seen.

    For years, we have been following, studying and speaking out on this very issue. The health of our beloved and life-supporting lake is threatened by phosphorus overloading from runoff throughout the watershed. The nutrient-rich water, warmed by the sun, produces blue-green algae.

    Advocacy, when it is informed by and charged with a personal, tangible experience, can be galvanizing. It was for us.

    And so it was for a father in St. Albans.

    Tim Camisa, a St. Albans native, had a similar experience to our encounter with an algae-laden lake. Taking his kids to swim in St. Albans Bay on a summer’s day in the early 2000s, he was repulsed by the sight of the soupy green mess where the bright sparkling water of his youth used to be. He resolved to do something about it.

    He studied nearly 50 Lake Champlain water quality reports commissioned by the state throughout the past few decades. Many of the reports’ cumulative 10,000 pages pointed to phosphorus-filled agricultural runoff as a prevalent source of bloom-generating pollution.

    After a year of study, it dawned on him: “Why not remove the phosphorous before it even reaches the runoff?”

    Several years later, after exhaustive design, research, patent procurement and capital raising, Camisa and his business partner, Mike Rooney, created a new company called Vermont Organics Reclamation Inc.

    VOR buys manure from dairy farmers and makes it into a seed-starter mix that they sell through seed catalogues and to nurseries that grow flowers. Camisa said the process takes up to 20 percent of the phosphorus out of circulation and repurposes it. It’s a win-win-win. VOR pays the farmer and in turn is paid by its customers, the phosphorus is exported and the lake is a little better for it.

    Strategically located on land adjacent to the Ben & Jerry’s plant, VOR has the potential to become a significant employer in the St. Albans community. Like the ice cream maker — with a social conscience — VOR’s environmentally motivated startup came about with the help of a public-private partnership.

    If Camisa and others’ firsthand encounters with damaged ecosystems could generate more focused entrepreneurial responses to these stresses, there is hope. But the solution won’t come without help from the public sector too.

    It is one of the important functions of our state and federal governments to support the kind of activity that will take Vermont in the direction we need to go. Surely, we want the services that a healthy Lake Champlain can provide: swimming, fishing, boating, water to drink, tourism dollars and views to lift your spirits in any season.

    The state of Vermont has been willing to spend many millions of dollars during the past decades for the Lake Champlain cleanup and what do we have to show for this investment? We have a lake still in deep trouble from phosphorous overloading.

    Public money well spent to provide businesses — whose products promote public good — with a little “leg up” on the competition could at the same time generate economic activity and create jobs. It’s not a new idea, but it is an effective one.

    Camisa’s exciting business venture is a model and a beacon. The outrage at what we are letting happen to our great lake should spur us to take more personal and innovative measures to find lasting solutions. State and federal governments should be beating the bushes to find entrepreneurs and innovators who want to make a difference as well as a profit.

    Hope to see you on bright and sparkling waters again soon.

    Environmental advocate Elizabeth Courtney is co-author of “Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State.” Email elizabethcourtneyvt@gmail.com.
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