Report: Lake Champlain Pollution Not Getting Worse, But Signs Of Recovery Are Rare

Jun 15, 2018

A new report on the health of Lake Champlain says polluted areas are not generally getting worse, but the lake isn't showing many signs of recovery from decades of phosphorous runoff either.

The Lake Champlain Basin Program's"2018 State of the Lake" report looks at a range of ecosystem indicators, and there is good news in the report: The lake has not seen new invasive species since 2014, and valued fish species — like lake trout and landlocked salmon — are doing well. Much of the lake’s water is clean and provides drinking water for many thousands of people.

But addressing phosphorous pollution that runs off from farm fields and city streets remains a serious challenge. The phosphorus fuels the blooms of cyanobacteria — also known as blue-green algae — that choke sections of the lake almost every summer.

“We’re not documenting an improvement in certain areas of the lake. That is true,” said Eric Howe, director of the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

The report, which is compiled every three years, notes that Missisquoi Bay — long-afflicted by phosphorus runoff — still has too much phosphorus and still experiences the toxic algae blooms.

Phosphorus loading in the south lake region of Lake Champlain also has not decreased. The northeast arm of the lake, including St. Albans Bay, is deteriorating and has seen frequent beach closures due to pollution, the report says.

And while phosphorus levels are decreasing in several lake tributaries, overall, “long-term phosphorus loading trends have not improved in most Lake Champlain tributaries,” said Matthew Vaughn, technical coordinator at the basin program. “While long-term decreases have been documented in the LaPlatte and Little Ausable rivers, long-term increases have been documented in the Lewis and Little Otter creeks and the Poultney River.”

"There's always more work to be done across the watershed. But there's also a need to recognize the work that has been done." — Eric Howe, director of the Lake Champlain Basin Program

The state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are committed to reducing phosphorus in the various lake sections. But, Howe said, success takes time.

“There’s always more work to be done across the watershed,” Howe said. “But there’s also a need to recognize the work that has been done and ... the lag time that we have between when the particular practice goes on the ground and the amount of time it takes for the results of that practice to have an effect on the water quality of the lake.”

And Howe said the lake faces new threats, including warmer and wetter weather due to climate change. For example, the lake doesn’t ice over as often as it used to, and without ice cover, the water warms sooner and makes it more susceptible to algae blooms.

Gov. Phil Scott also spoke at the report unveiling event Friday, and pledged his administration’s support to the cleanup efforts. But Scott also acknowledged the reality that, for now, the lake is not getting better.

“And I look forward to the day when we can say that we’ve turned the corner and actually are improving all sectors of the lake from some of the devastation we’ve seen,” Scott said.

The basin program report also noted the direct connection between water quality and the Vermont economy. It cited a recent University of Vermont study that showed that significant deterioration in water quality could cause home values in local communities to decline by more than a third.