Lake Champlain

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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.

Taylor Dobbs / VPR/file

The Shumlin Administration Thursday unveiled its latest cleanup plan to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain from all sources. But the plan lacked details on how officials would enforce new regulations and how the state would pay for the needed changes.

David Mears, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and other department heads, said the plan will work  by increasing regulation on sources such as farm runoff, stream bank erosion, road management and logging practices.

John Dillon / VPR File Photo

One of the most beautiful parts of Lake Champlain has also become its most polluted. The shorelands of Missisquoi Bay have been designated by the Ramsar Convention as a vital wetland, and its waters support a unique wildlife habitat.

But large farming operations along rivers feeding into the bay have led to phosphorus levels in some cases double the target limits. And according to Anthony Iarrapino, staff attorney at the Vermont office of the Conservation Law Foundation, the bay suffers from more high-alert toxic algae blooms than any other part of Lake Champlain.

Federal regulators have pressured the Shumlin Administration to show how it plans to curb the flow of pollution into Lake Champlain. The Environmental Protection Agency says the state’s most recent proposal is lacking. And the EPA has served notice that it wants a more aggressive plan for action.

House lawmakers have given final approval to legislation that aims to expedite the clean-up of Vermont waterways. But the bill that passed the floor Thursday doesn’t include any funding for the effort. And even its chief proponent says it won’t address the pollution crisis unfolding in places like Lake Champlain.

John Dillon / VPR File

Gov. Peter Shumlin has unveiled an updated plan to clean up Lake Champlain. And administration officials say it’s the most ambitious proposal yet. But clean water advocates say the report will do little to head off an ecological disaster in the state’s largest body of water.

David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, says the clean-up proposal submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday is a bold step forward in the decades-old effort to curb pollution flowing into Lake Champlain.

John Dillon / VPR File

The state’s last plan to reduce pollution in Lake Champlain was rejected by the Environmental Protection Agency. The plan, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), did not take into account the effects of climate change, according to the EPA, and was not specific enough it its requirements.

David Mears, the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation has been working to release the final version of the TMDL by the end of March.

John Dillon / VPR File

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is calling for more details in the state’s plan to reduce pollution flowing into Lake Champlain.

A Jan. 17 letter [PDF] from the agency applauded the state’s ongoing efforts to develop a plan to reduce phosphorus pollution. Phosphorus can lead to toxic blue-green algae blooms that have appeared in the big lake in recent years.

Taylor Dobbs / VPR

As the state prepares to set a new course for Lake Champlain cleanup, wastewater treatment plants across Vermont continue to dump millions of gallons of polluted water into Lake Champlain and other waterways.

Most of the plant operators responsible for the unauthorized releases aren’t penalized in any way.

“There’s no question that all of the sewage treatment plants in Vermont, at least in the Lake Champlain basin, are going to have to do more to reduce phosphorus levels,” said David Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

Taylor Dobbs / VPR

State and federal environmental agencies began a series of public meetings this week about a new plan to curb excessive pollution from Vermont into Lake Champlain.

According to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Vermont needs to cut the amount of phosphorus it allows into Lake Champlain by 36 percent.

The meetings mark the beginning of the final phase of a years-long process to develop a plan to clean up the lake.

The Village of Essex Junction has experienced three large accidential discharges from the municipal water treatment facility in the last three months.

Two of the releases totaled between 500,000 and 1 million gallons, but water quality superintendent Jim Jutras said all of the recent releases have been near the end of the treatment process and were not raw sewage.

The recent problems at the facility all center around the chlorination and dechlorination of wastewater, which must be completed before it is released into the Winooski River.

Toby Talbot / AP

The federal government shutdown has delayed a key project in the state’s continuing effort to clean up Lake Champlain.

Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said the state’s work with a team of EPA scientists and policy experts was put on hold this month because the federal officials were furloughed.

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