For years now, state leaders have been pointing to how valuable a resource Lake Champlain is to our state, not just because of its natural beauty but because of the economy actually derived from it.

In turn, there has been a lot of concern about pollution that has formed in the lake through time, and calls for more funding and resources have been made at local, state and federal levels — each with some results.

A new study would suggest that the lake truly has the potential to be an economic driver for Vermont, as well as a gem in the state. But not without some serious changes.

According to a notice from the Center for Research on Vermont, if the phosphorus inputs of Lake Champlain were to be eliminated, the Missisquoi Region would bring in $28.5 million in local tourism and $11 million in property sales, according to the study in the upcoming edition of Journal of Environmental Management.

In order to reap these benefits, however, the state must invest long-term, as the benefits outweigh the cost only after 30 years of 100% reduction of phosphorus. Improving the water quality of Lake Champlain would benefit drinking water, recreational activities, and flood resiliency. Doing nothing will lead to a drastic decline in water quality, property sales and tourism spending, the researchers found.

The study highlights four areas: The social benefits and costs of reductions in phosphorus loading; models that link water quality projections with economic and health outcomes; total benefits may exceed the costs under a long time horizon and low discount rate; and that non-market valuation is uncertain and likely underestimates the magnitude of benefits.

According to the study, “excess phosphorus loading to water bodies has led to increasing frequency and severity of harmful algal blooms, negatively impacting economic activity and human health. While interventions to improve water quality can create large societal benefits, these investments are costly and the value of benefits is often unknown.”

The study notes that understanding the social and economic impacts of reduced phosphorus loading is critical for developing policies that are then supported by the public and politicians.

“Here, we quantify the social benefits and costs of improving water quality in Lake Champlain under a range of phosphorus reduction and climate change scenarios between 2016 and 2050,” the study’s authors write.

That is a lot of forward-thinking, and the models provided seem convincing that tourism, property values and the health of citizens would all be positively impacted.

The cost of doing so would be between $55 million and $60 million. That is a big investment.

“Over this 35 year time horizon, the combined benefits do not outweigh the costs under any scenario. … Importantly, we almost certainly underestimate the value of clean water, due to the omission of other types of benefits,” the study notes.

The study posits the obvious question: Are investments in water quality worth the cost?

The authors state that one possible conclusion is that the costs of improving water quality truly outweigh the benefits, and therefore, these investments are a poor use of public funds. Alternatively, one could also conclude that the benefits of improved water quality have been underestimated, and if properly valued, then investments in clean water are more likely justified — a conundrum called the “Water Value Paradox.”

So far, in this fight to keep the lake clean, it appears we are not keeping pace.

In a recent report on the cost effectiveness of investments directed toward reducing phosphorus, the Vermont State Auditor’s Office found that wastewater and stormwater projects received 53% of state funds, even though such projects are among the least cost-effective solutions to reduce phosphorus loading.

And political support in Vermont for investments in clean water is mixed. “This creates tensions between two cultural values that are core to the state’s identity, as well as its economic activity — clean water in the lake and small-scale family farming,” the study’s authors note.

To make a dent, we have to think about Lake Champlain the way we think about the planet and climate change. While estimates of the social cost of carbon remain scientifically contentious and politically fraught, they have undoubtedly shaped climate change policy in critical ways.

To fight for the lake, and its long-term viability, and to preserve and enhance its potential as a critical piece of our state’s economy, we will need to start investing more toward its overall health and ours.

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(1) comment

MP Dunleavey

Hi, I'm visiting from NYC and read this editorial with great interest. Lake Champlain is stunning, and although I'm not from around here I was curious -- and even a little concerned, as an outsider -- to hear more about the "Fight for the Lake." So...imagine my disappointment when I got a long disquisition on the hazards of phosphorous inputs, phosphate loading, etc., with no clear explanation of what phosphorous does, where it comes from, and why it's so toxic to the lake. I'm willing to believe the conclusions of the report you're alluding to, and that: "Doing nothing will lead to a drastic decline in water quality, property sales and tourism spending, the researchers found."

But I would have SO appreciated a helping hand (for non-VT readers like myself), that would have explained why, exactly, the consequences could be so dire and far reaching. I'm sure local readers are steeped in the phosphorous debate. But this is the kind of piece you want everyone to read and understand, as it sounds akin to the struggle for clean water in many other communities.

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