Lake Champlain

Angela Evancie / VPR

The deteriorating water quality in Lake Champlain has been a topic of ecological concern, litigation and spending in the last two decades. Much of the problem comes from phosphorous washing into the lake from its massive watershed and setting off blooms of toxic, filthy blue-green algae.

Angela Evancie / VPR/file

Environmentalists are giving Gov. Peter Shumlin early accolades for his proposal to reduce the amount of phosphorus running into Lake Champlain. But a prominent agriculture group says the plan to clean up the lake might end up hurting the farms that operate near it.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Efforts to clean up Lake Champlain are about to get a big boost from the federal government. Today, Jason Weller, chief of the United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, visited Montpelier to announce that the state will be getting $16 million over the next five years.

Angela Evancie / VPR

Gov. Peter Shumlin says his new Lake Champlain pollution plan contains a "carrot and stick" approach to control water pollution from dairy farms.

The carrot is money. The governor says he'll provide funds to help farmers do a better job handling manure.

But if they continue to pollute, he wants to kick them out of a program that reduces their property taxes. That’s the stick.

Implementing a comprehensive plan to deal with the toxic algae blooms in Lake Champlain was a key part of Shumlin's inaugural address on Thursday afternoon.

John Dillon / VPR File Photo

The Conservation Law Foundation is challenging the state of Vermont in court to impose more stringent controls on water pollution from farms in the Missisquoi bay watershed.

Chris Kilian, the Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation, said the group filed an appeal in the environmental division of Vermont Superior Court Tuesday after the state Agency of Agriculture declined to mandate “best management practices” on farms in the polluted Missisquoi Bay watershed.

Library of Congress

From the shore of Lake Champlain in Burlington, a faint outline of a small, craggy rock formation is visible, nestled between Juniper Island and Shelburne Point. Its name is Rock Dunder and despite being a tiny blip on the Lake Champlain skyline, it has a deep significance in Abenaki mythology.


Taylor Dobbs / VPR/file

A new report from the University of Vermont says Vermonters are willing to pay more – but still not nearly enough – to improve water quality in Vermont.

Water quality challenges in the state are widespread, the report said, not just in Lake Champlain. As a result, the majority of Vermonters are willing to pay more to help solve pollution issues – including the high phosphorus levels that caused unprecedented toxic algae blooms in parts of Lake Champlain this year.

A leading environmental group says it may appeal a state ruling that rejected stricter controls on farms in the most polluted watershed of Lake Champlain. 

The Conservation Law Foundation wanted the state to require farmers in the Missisquoi Basin to follow best management practices to reduce pollution. These include wide buffers between fields and streams and properly storing manure.

rskvt / Flickr Creative Commons

The state has declined to make best management practices mandatory for farms in the Missisquoi Bay watershed. 

The shallow bay on the northern end of Lake Champlain frequently sees summertime blooms of toxic blue green algae. The algae blooms are fueled in part from farm-run off in the heavily agricultural region.

Conservation Law Foundation Senior Attorney Chris Kilian, seen here observing a cyanobacteria bloom on St. Albans Bay in 2014, says state officials are allowing sewage plants to send more phosphorus into Lake Champlain instead of less.
Taylor Dobbs / VPR File

The clean-up of Lake Champlain looms as perhaps the largest, and most expensive environmental challenge facing Vermont. And state officials are exploring whether a cap-and-trade program for phosphorus runoff might help solve the problem.

Back in the 1990s, the acid rain problem had gotten so bad that some New England lakes couldn’t support brook trout anymore.

Angela Evancie / VPR

Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, stood on a windy beach Friday in St. Albans Bay State Park and made a commitment to Vermonters.

“I’ll do the work,” she said.

McCarthy, standing alongside Gov. Peter Shumlin, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch, was in Vermont to show support for the state’s efforts to clean up Lake Champlain.

The news conference at the St. Albans Bay State Park was a lot of activity on a beach that was empty for much of the summer because of toxic blue-green algae blooms that filled the bay for weeks.

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To the casual observer, Lake Champlain might seem pretty calm right now. But lake scientists know that it is kicking up a storm. It's undergoing turnover and seiche (sounds like saysh) as we speak.

What, exactly, are these phenomena? Breck Bowden, director of the Lake Champlain Sea Grant program, explains.

What's turnover?

Turnover is "one of the most unusual and least-known properties of water," Bowden says. It starts with the lake's stratification; the warmer water sits on top, and the cooler water sinks to the bottom.

You might have heard about these blue-green algae blooms on Lake Champlain. But do you know what they smell like? What causes them? The health effects? VPR reporters Annie Russell and Taylor Dobbs take a field trip to an active bloom in St. Albans Bay to get some answers.

For a map of algae problem areas, check here.

Taylor Dobbs / VPR

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stood at the edge of Lake Champlain Thursday and promised help for its troubled waters.

"This is the sixth-largest fresh water body in the country, and there’s no question that it needs help,” Vilsack said.

That help - $45 million of it - is coming from the USDA over the next five years. That’s the same amount USDA dedicated to Lake Champlain over the previous 10 years, to be given out in half the time.

Conservation Law Foundation Senior Attorney Chris Kilian, seen here observing a cyanobacteria bloom on St. Albans Bay in 2014, says state officials are allowing sewage plants to send more phosphorus into Lake Champlain instead of less.
Taylor Dobbs / VPR File

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.”

Officials have been working for two years to figure out the source of a slow petroleum leak that’s repeatedly caused a sheen on the water flowing into Burlington’s waterfront wastewater treatment facility.

But so far, they’ve had very little luck. 

The petroleum leak resulted in a smell or a visible sheen on top of the water at the facility, according to Gary Kessler, who oversees the compliance and enforcement division of the Department of Environmental Conservation.

“What I was told was that it’s a very low level, but it’s perceivable,” Kessler said.

State officials hope that Clean Water Week, which starts on Aug. 21, will celebrate Vermont waterways and the efforts underway to clean them up.
Ric Cengeri / VPR/file

Lake Champlain is 125 miles long and 14 miles across at its widest point. It offers boating enthusiasts almost 500 square miles of water to traverse. But how does the culture of the "6th Great Lake" compare to others in the state like Memphremagog, Willoughby and Bomoseen?

Vermont Department of Health

Earlier this week a widespread bloom of blue-green algae prompted a warning for hundreds of thousands of people in Toledo, Ohio. Health officials said the algae found in Lake Erie made drinking water from the lake unsafe.

Taylor Dobbs / VPR

Vermont’s farms are to blame for almost 40 percent of the state’s phosphorus pollution into Lake Champlain, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, the Conservation Law Foundation is calling on the state to force farms that pollute the troubled Missiquoi Bay to implement “Best Management Practices” to mitigate their pollution.

Currently, phosphorus reduction is largely voluntary for farms. But there’s increasing pressure on the state, both from federal officials and water quality advocates, to make dramatic cuts in Vermont’s phosphorus output into Lake Champlain.

Taylor Dobbs / VPR

Clean water advocates are exerting new legal pressure on the Shumlin Administration to reduce pollution flowing into Lake Champlain. The latest maneuver aims to crack down on the commercial development that experts say has exacerbated Vermont’s water pollution problem.

Pavement or other impervious surfaces, especially vast expanses of it, tends to be bad for water quality. That’s because it’s usually displaced the soil and vegetation that would have otherwise helped filter pollutants from the stormwater flowing into creeks and streams.

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