Contributed Column

The Basin Beat

by Lori Fisher, executive director,
Lake Champlain Committee

In the 20 years since Business People was launched, a lot has been learned about our beautiful lake.

Lake Champlain has been around for over 12,000 years. The last 20 are but a blip in time, but they have produced dramatic changes. Here's a quick look at three particular issues from the last two decades.

Zebra mussels In 1993 zebra mussels, a Eurasian species, were first found at the south end of Lake Champlain. Like exotic species before them, they probably arrived through the Champlain Canal, which connects our lake with the Great Lakes through the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. Since then, zebra mussels have colonized all areas of the lake except Missisquoi Bay. These striped mussels now cover everything from submerged rocks, pilings and boat hulls to intake pipes, shipwrecks and native mussels. In addition to their own effects on native species, zebra mussels help pave the way for other invasives by increasing water clarity so that Eurasian water milfoil and water chestnut can grow at greater depths.

Zebra mussels are only one of 44 exotic species in Lake Champlain; others may have smaller or larger effects. Just this past summer, alewives, voracious, predatory fish, were collected near Isle La Motte and in Missisquoi Bay. In the Great Lakes, alewives underwent mass die-offs that fouled shorelines and beaches, altered the zooplankton community and decreased lake trout and salmon reproduction when all-alewife diets led to nutrient deficiencies. While ecological and economic impacts in Lake Champlain are hard to predict, they could be substantial.

Toxic algae In the summer of 2000, three dogs died from toxins in algae they had eaten. Since that year, blooms of toxin-producing algae have been recorded every year on the lake, mostly in Missisquoi Bay. The toxic algae may have been here long ago, but awareness of them has increased tremendously.

Algae in general and toxic algae in particular can be limited by the amount of phosphorus in the water. Therefore, management efforts have long focused on keeping this nutrient out of the lake. Actions began with a ban on phosphate laundry detergent in the 1970s. More recently, improvements at wastewater treatment plants led to much less phosphorus release compared to two decades ago. Furthermore, tremendous resources have been invested to control pollution from agricultural fields. However, the acreage of developed land has increased substantially at twice the rate of population growth in some counties. Since developed land contributes roughly three times as much phosphorus acre-per-acre than farmland, many reductions in nutrient loading have been offset.

A lake-wide phosphorus reduction plan is in place. In response to citizen advocacy, Vermont and Quebec officials agreed to try to meet reduction goals by 2009. Governor Jim Douglas has made cleaning Lake Champlain a budget priority. Despite the stepped-up effort, achieving necessary reductions won't be easy, but it must be done or the lake will deteriorate as a resource and algae blooms will become more common and more widespread.

Stormwater As we've paved fields and forests with roadways, parking lots, housing and commercial developments, stormwater impairment has become an increasingly important water quality issue. Runoff that once percolated into the ground, where it was cleaned and released slowly over time, now enters storm drains directly in one big flood, carrying with it pollutants such as pesticides, herbicides, motor oil, vehicular fluids, and pet waste. Slowly we are changing our approach to how and why we manage stormwater. While in the past the principal goal was preventing flooding, now we emphasize maintaining natural flows of water to protect rivers and streams.

The legal wrangling over stormwater pollution can hide the fact that it's a problem to which everyone contributes. Individuals can take many steps to reduce personal stormwater impacts. Examples include washing cars on the lawn rather than the driveway, flushing pet waste down the toilet, preventing runoff from home landscaping projects, and directing rooftop runoff into rain barrels.

Where we've been; where we're going' Back in 1985 salmonid restoration was the only interstate management program on the lake. Today interstate and international agreements and cooperation are the norm. The first formal intergovernmental structure for lake resource protection and management began in 1988 under the leadership of then-Gov. Madeleine Kunin. It was expanded in 1990, when Sens. Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords secured federal support to create the Lake Champlain Basin Program (LCBP). With federal funding, broad public input and the help of state and provincial governments, LCBP developed and is now implementing a lake restoration plan.

Academic attention to the lake has increased dramatically as well. SUNY-Plattsburgh now has a Lake Champlain Research Institute; the University of Vermont has opened a world-class freshwater ecosystem laboratory; and scientists like UVM's Dr. Mary Watzin actively guide policy discussions.

Efforts to undo past mistakes will take time and will require the involvement of individuals, businesses and government, but the attention and resources now being dedicated to lake protection bode well for the future of this magnificent waterbody.

Lori Fisher is executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee, a citizen advocacy organization that has been working for more than 40 years to protect and improve lake health. •

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