A tale of two lakes

Anthony Iarrapino

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

That opening line from Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities ran through my head last week as I had two very different experiences of Lake Champlain, the 6th largest freshwater lake in the lower 48.

On Saturday, CLF participated in Burlington, Vt’s Lake Champlain Maritime Festival.  Visitors from Canada, outlying towns in Vermont, and many of the 50 states descended on the waterfront for fun in the sun along New England’s “west coast.” Festival goers had a chance to take sailing lessons and inspect old-style guide boats and other watergoing vessels from the Lake’s past.  By day, the sun shone on the broad blue Lake with its breathtaking vistas of the Adirondack Mountains in New York.  And by night great music from the likes of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals echoed across the waterfront.  Although they may not have known it, many of the festival goers also had a chance to drink water from the lake as it serves as the main public drinking water source for 250,000 people in the greater Burlington area.

The festival was exactly the kind of event that highlights the Lake as a recreational, cultural, and economic resource for Vermonters and those who come to visit.  It was a “best of times” moment for our great Lake.

But less than two months ago, in the midst of the summer’s worst heat wave, the same waterfront exploded with foul blue-green algae blooms that turned the water a nasty shade of slimy green.  The Burlington Free Press has an depressing gallery of photos here.

And that brings me to the “worst of times” moments from last week.

On Tuesday, members of the St. Albans Bay Area Watershed Association invited me to come see the foul water quality that has been plaguing the Bay for most of the summer.  I drove up to St. Albans, roughly 30 miles north of Burlington, to meet with three local residents–a retiree, a high school principal, and a state police officer–who are both maddened and saddened by the plight of St. Albans Bay.

A blue-green algae scum fouls and discolors the mostly-deserted waters of St. Albans Bay near a spot that used to average 50,000 visitors a summer before algae blooms like this became a regular experience

They took me on a tour of the watershed, an area that has become dominated by industrial-scale dairy farming responsible for spreading millions of gallons of liquid manure each year onto farm fields that eventually drain into the bay.  The excess nutrients in the runoff from those fields fuel the blue-green algae that choke the life out of the Bay, depressing area businesses and property values.  Forget the image of cows grazing happily on green fields with a red barn in the background.  The cows on these farms were packed tightly into low, single-story barns that look more like warehouses.

The group took me to the waterfront St. Albans Bay Park.  The bright-green, scummy water I saw is pictured at left.  It was a blistering hot day, but no one was using the beach or even thinking about swimming.  The ice cream parlor on the park’s edge had no customers and the convenience store looked pretty slow too.

One of my tourguides, who used to take his kids swimming there all the time in the 80s, told me that the park was once a major destination for Canadians who would drive south to bask on the Bay’s calm beaches–bringing their tourist money with them.  But annual visits to the park–once as high as 50,000 people per summer–have dropped to less than 5,000 as water quality has declined.

Vermont cannot and will not prosper as a state if we continue to tell this tale of two lakes.  The Maritime festival highlights what a tremendous asset a clean lake is and can be.  Yet one wonders what would have happened if the festival was scheduled for earlier in the summer when the water near Burlington looked much as the water in St. Albans did last week.  The experience of depressed property values and economic decline in St. Albans Bay highlights what we stand to lose if we don’t stem the pollution flowing to all sections of the Lake.  We cannot tolerate a situation where you have to check a Department of Health web site to see the status of blue-green algae blooms in the part of the Lake you are planning on visiting.

Whether the problem is pollution from poorly-run megafarms, fouled runoff from big-box parking lots, or inadequately treated sewage, CLF’s Lake Champlain Lakekeeper is committed to restoring and maintaining the best of times all the time and everywhere in Lake Champlain.

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