Cleaning Up Lake Champlain: Real Progress At Last?

Chris Kilian | @ChrisKilianVT

Blue-Green Algae Fouls Lake Champlain, 2011

Blue-Green Algae Fouls Lake Champlain, 2011

Vermont’s green mountains, open fields, and compact villages have made the state a living example of how to balance development and a healthy environment. But Vermont stands at a crossroads. Sprawling development is paving rural landscapes and endangering our quality of life. Polluted runoff from agricultural lands and poorly planned suburban development is dumping phosphorus and toxic substances into our waters. And climate change is bringing more intense storms that are making the runoff from uncontrolled pollution sources worse.

In particular, Lake Champlain, the nation’s sixth largest body of freshwater and Vermont’s crown jewel, is suffering from a phosphorous pollution crisis. Too much of this potent nutrient is fueling terrible, sometimes toxic, algae outbreaks that destroy the lake’s beauty, close beaches, and even threaten public health. The impacts extend beyond the lake itself to the many rivers and streams that flow into it, many of which are polluted and in decline.

Now, after years of legal battles to force clean up of the lake, EPA is setting new mandatory pollution control targets for the state under the Clean Water Act. EPA has required Governor Shumlin’s administration to draft a plan to meet these targets and to submit it to EPA by the end of March, committing the state to legally binding programs that must dramatically reduce pollution from sewage-treatment plants, farms, and paved areas like parking lots and poorly maintained backroads.

It’s a critical juncture for a state that, under previous leadership, delayed and resisted implementing enforceable pollution controls for years.

But, if these new proposed measures are to be meaningful and effective, they must include:

– An expansion of stormwater control programs. It’s only by creating a comprehensive approach to stormwater control, which includes bringing some municipalities under the umbrella of these regulatory programs and holding commercial developments accountable, that we can dramatically reduce polluted runoff.

– Significant reductions in the impacts of pollution from dairy farms. Runoff from manure and other fertilizers contributes to nutrient pollution; this, coupled with cows directly urinating and defecating into waterways, is overwhelming certain areas of Lake Champlain. The Administration must commit to creating buffers along waterways to filter out polluted runoff and levy stiff fines for over-use of fertilizers.

– Upgrading of outdated sewage treatment plants in favor of modern technology used by communities across the country to keep their water clean.

Clean waterways are essential to the quality of life and economic vitality we all treasure here in Vermont. We applaud the actions of EPA and are relying on the Shumlin Administration to create real, enforceable programs that could finally improve the health of Lake Champlain and all of our Vermont waters.

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