Lake Champlain: Later than you think

Sunday’s Burlington Free Press included one of the most impactful pieces I’ve read in our Incredibly Shrinking Biggest Newspaper.

It wasn’t written by any of their staff reporters or editors. Nope, it was cribbed (with permission) from the Lake Champlain Committee, and was buried deep inside the paper. It was entitled “Lake Champlain: Growing Old Fast.” I will link to the Committee’s original version, which unlike the Freeploid, is not paywalled.

Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I learned a lot of stuff from this essay that I hadn’t known before, and all of it was bad news.

The topline: “cleaning up” Lake Champlain will accomplish nothing more than preventing additional damage. Over 200-plus years of human activity, the bulk of it in good ol’ green ol’ Vermont, we have caused significant and lasting harm to our crown jewel. That damage has been done and, like the greenhouse gas effect, its impact will continue long after the last nutrient has been dumped into the lake.

Which makes it doubly crucial that we get our act together and institute a tough cleanup plan with some real teeth. The longer we wait, the worse it gets; and a lot of the damage is irreversible.

LCC scientist Mike Winslow says that “Lake Champlain is aging much more rapidly than it would without human pressures.” In the 1800s, most of the harm came from clear-cutting forests and the resultant erosion. In the 20th Century, most of the damage came from a high phosphorus load. Most of that came from human wastewater and from farming. Yep, good old Vermont agriculture. (Until the 1970s, a lot of phosphorus came from household detergents.)

In Franklin County, which includes St. Albans and Misssisquoi Bays, there was an increase in the net import of phosphorus for agriculture from 14 tons/year in 1924 to 821 tons/year in 2007. The total net import of phosphorus to Franklin County from 1924 to 2007 was 48,000 tons.

But that’s not the bad news.

None of the phosphorus that has entered the lake from detergents, wastewater, or agriculture really leaves. It settles to the bottom of the lake and becomes part of the sediment.

And there it sits, until the weather warms and some of the phosphorus re-enters the water, triggering toxic algae blooms. “In Missisquoi Bay,” Winslow writes, “43 percent of the summer phosophorus in the water column comes from the sediments.” The result:

… reductions in watershed phosphorus loading will have minimal effect on the amount available to algae in our lifetimes. Reductions slow future aging, but cannot reverse the past.

Which should not be taken as an argument against limiting nutrient flows into the lake. It should inspire the opposite reaction: a sense of urgency in our “cleanup” efforts.

We can age gracefully by taking care of ourselves, eating well and exercising, or we can age rapidly with hard living and an unhealthy diet. In either case, aging is a one way process.

I’m sure there are people better informed than me, to whom this was not new information. It struck me like being dunked in a vat of icewater.


2 thoughts on “Lake Champlain: Later than you think

  1. nortryder

    Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. If you find that depressing check out what’s going on with solid waste in our jolly little state.

  2. Rita Pitkin

    Thanks for this. So glad TDI got their permits to trench up the bottom of the lake for their electric cables. All it took was agreeing to add some money to the clean-up fund. Geez.


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