The tragedy this past weekend that left more than 500,000 Ohio and Michigan residents without safe drinking water shows the real dangers of polluted runoff. Toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie left drinking water with dangerous levels of microcystin. More than 100 people visited area hospitals, with upset stomachs, dizziness, and vomiting after drinking contaminated water.
The dangers of toxic algae blooms are not limited to Lake Erie. Excess nutrients – especially phosphorus – from agricultural runoff pollute Lake Champlain.
Nutrients meant to feed farm crops instead runoff into Lake Champlain where they cause excessive growth of algae and other weeds. Toxic algae blooms in Lake Champlain have caused beach closings and are dangerous to people and animals. In 2012, Missisquoi Bay suffered a large fish kill as a result of particularly bad phosphorous pollution.
Keeping our waterways clean and healthy requires reducing runoff from farms. Earlier this summer, CLF petitioned the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to require stronger controls on agricultural runoff to protect Lake Champlain. As the situation in Ohio shows, the safety of the drinking water of thousands of Vermonters is at stake. Reducing farm pollution is manageable and necessary. In some circumstances, funding is available to assist farmers with pollution controls. Requiring improved management practices, such as fencing to keep cows and other livestock out of streams prevents direct pollution impacts. Creating buffers along streams can minimize runoff near fields. Reducing ditching and allowing water to flow more slowly cuts back on erosion after rainstorms. Careful enforcement can reduce overuse of fertilizers that feed algae instead of plants.
With nearly a quarter-million households relying on Lake Champlain for drinking water, we cannot afford to keep adding dangerous levels of phosphorus to the Lake. The experience in Lake Erie is a cautionary tale that we should heed in Vermont before it’s too late.