Trying to Cure the Blue-Green Algae Blues

Anthony Iarrapino

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of Lake Champlain by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain. Of course the Lake’s been there for more than 400 years and de Champlain was certainly not its first human “discoverer.”  Putting aside the anthropological and historical debates, we here at CLF think it’s always a good time to celebrate the many important roles that water bodies such as Lake Champlain–one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country–play in our lives.

Phosphorus pollution causes blue-green algae blooms, like this one that appeared in Lake Champlain's Missisquoi Bay in 2007.  (Image Source, Vermont Department of Health)

Phosphorus pollution causes blue-green algae blooms, like this one that appeared in Lake Champlain's Missisquoi Bay in 2007. (Image Source, Vermont Department of Health)

Alas, there hasn’t been much to celebrate when it comes to water quality in many parts of Lake Champlain that are plagued annually with “blooms” or “scums” of blue-green algae caused by excess phosphorus pollution.

This pollution comes from a variety of sources including manure and other agricultural wastes, polluted storm water runoff from parking lots, rooftops, streets, and other developed areas, and from sewage treatment plant discharges.

Last week, the Vermont Health Department posted its first health advisory of the summer, warning of blue-green algae sightings in Lake Champlain’s Missisquoi Bay, Shelburne Bay, and even traces of the scum were spotted in the water off Red Rocks Park–a popular swimming location in Burlington.

As the Health Department’s advisory warns, blue-green algae can do more than just make the water look nasty.  When blue-greens are blooming the Health Department advises as follows:

  • Avoid contact with algae-contaminated water.
  • Do not swim or bathe in the water. Remember that children are considered to be at higher risk because they are more likely to drink the water.
  • Monitor water intakes for private residences. If you see algae present near the intake, switch to an alternate safe source of water.
  • Do not use algae contaminated water to prepare meals or brush teeth. Boiling water will not remove toxins.
  • Do not allow pets in algae-contaminated water.

While this depressing news can give lake lovers the blues, there is cause for hope.

Earlier this month, the Vermont Environmental Court struck down a permit issued by Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to the City of Montpelier’s sewage treatment plant, reasoning that the permit–which would have allowed the City to more than double its load of phosphorus pollution to Lake Champlain–violated the federal Clean Water Act.

This is a major victory for CLF and the Lake Champlain Lakekeeper in the broader efforts to reduce pollution in the lake at a time when Vermont is exceeding its legally-required pollution reduction targets by more than 100 metric tons each year. This news report does a good job of summarizing the decision, which can be read in full here.

Instead of redesigning the permit to actually decrease pollution as the Court has ordered, state lawyers have already started the process of appealing the decision to the Vermont Supreme Court (how sad is it that our tax dollars are funding a legal position that favors adding more pollution to a lake suffering from health-threatening algae blooms like those shown above???). I hope for a day when Vermont officials will follow the law without the need for a judge ordering them to.  Until that day comes, CLF will continue to fight for better pollution control permits that prevent pollution increases and help achieve rather than undermine the Clean Water Act’s goal of waters that are safe for swimming, fishing, and drinking.

It’s our way of trying to cure the blue-green algae blues.

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