Pat Caverzasi has had a home on St. Albans Bay for 40 years, and she says the water on the front edge of her property has never been green before.
This year, it is. St. Albans Bay has been green for weeks, covered by one of the biggest blue-green algae blooms there in years.
“Even though they’ve seen blue-green algae and they’ve located a little bit down there,” she said, gesturing to the north end of the bay, “now it’s spread incredibly – it looks like a carpet – it’s really bad.”
The blooms can cause health problems in humans and have been fatal to animals swimming in the lake. Officials have closed multiple beaches this summer because of them.
The issues come amid the state’s efforts to reduce pollution in Lake Champlain.
The pea-soup green algae is caused by an excess of phosphorus in the lake, and it releases an aerosol cloud that smells vaguely like rotting vegetables.
The green in the bay is new this year, but Caverzasi’s yard has a noticeably not green section.
Running from the back of the yard toward the front of the property is a swath of dead grass.
She attributes the dead grass to runoff from a neighboring farm.
“We had a runoff which was huge between our property and our neighbor’s property, and it burned all the grass,” she said. “And all 40 years that we’ve been here there’s never been runoff that has burned and it hasn’t come back.”
Farms make up the largest portion of phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain, but developed land, stream bank erosion and wastewater treatment facilities all play a role in the lake’s phosphorus load.
Chris Kilian, the director of the Vermont Conservation Law Foundation, looked across St. Albans Bay Friday in awe.
“I’m in shock,” he said. The bloom was the worst he’d ever seen on the bay.
He was there to take the organization’s lake keeper boat for a ride to see the bloom.
Kilian said scientists working on the problem in the 1990s knew how bad it could get if phosphorus pollution in the lake continued to get worse.
“All the predictions that the endless studies and discussion from the state and the feds and academics have come to pass,” he said. “I mean, we’re documenting the long, slow death of at least areas of Lake Champlain and potentially the lake itself unless we change what we’re doing.”
The state has to change what it’s doing. A lawsuit filed by CLF forced the state to revise its Lake Champlain cleanup plan, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load plan, or TMDL.
The state’s efforts outlined in the plan call for the implementation of new practices for farmers, developers and others to cut down on pollution into the lake.
Kilian said that up to now, policy efforts haven’t done enough to prioritize the health of the lake.
“From a public policy perspective – through action and inaction – we’ve decided that it’s more important for agriculture to be able to dump their waste into the rivers and into the lake than it is to protect all of the property values and recreation and public interest around the bay,” he said.
The state is considering a plan that would force farmers to implement best management practices defined by the state to better control water pollution.
Up to now, those efforts have been voluntary – a policy both Kilian and Caverzasi say must change.