Vermont Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore is blaming the media for reporting on Lake Champlain’s water quality problems. Nice.
During a presentation to lawmakers on Wednesday, Moore displayed a series of articles covering outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae on the lake, and blamed those damn reports for a more than 10 percent drop in visits to certain state parks this year.
“It’s headlines like these that probably played no small part in discouraging people from heading to our parks,” she told lawmakers, according to VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff.
There’s a few problems with this, need I say. First, as you may have discerned from the “probably,” Moore has no actual evidence to back up her assertion.
Second, the drop was reported at eight of Vermont’s 13 lakeside parks. What about the other five?
Third, it’s not cool to blame the media for, you know, doing their goddamn jobs. If there’s a potentially toxic — and spectacularly ugly — algae bloom on the lake, are we supposed to ignore it for fear of inciting tourists to stay away?
Fourth, those blooms have been a regular summertime feature of Vermont life for years and years. Did this past year’s reportage suddenly hit home this year?
Were there more stories than ever before? Moore admitted she doesn’t know.
Fifth, attendance at state parks is a small subset of total tourism in the Champlain basin. Were other parts of the industry affected? Again, no evidence.
And finally, why is this attack coming from the state’s top environmental official, whose chief priority is not maintaining the tourism trade — it’s, you know, the health of the environment? This might be more understandable, if still tacky and poorly aimed, if it came from the tourism commissioner or the commerce secretary. But the environmental person?
Moore said the lake is not a monolith, and that many areas are unaffected by algae, which is true enough. But what does she expect reporters to do? GIve equal coverage to algae blooms and the lack thereof? Sorry, but that’s not how the news business works. And it shouldn’t. A clean, healthy beach is not news. What’s news is a sludgy, toxic, bright green beach that’s closed for health reasons. And frankly, it’s kind of hard to ignore.
She also blamed the press for failing “to tell the positive stories of all the work we’re doing” on waterways cleanup. So I guess she wants reporters to act as press agents for the Scott administration?
Some good work has been done, for sure. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. According to Digger, since 2016 the state has reduced flows of algae-feeding phosphorus into Champlain by an estimated 16.4 metric tons. Which sounds like a lot, but is it?
Well, Vermont is under a federal mandate to reduce phosphorus inputs by 241 metric tons by 2036. So, after three years of a 20-year process, That’s 15 percent of the time allotted.
If we were 15 percent on the way to meeting that mandate, we would have reduced phosphorus inputs by more than 36 percent. So we’re less than halfway to where we should be by now.
That is, admittedly, a simplistic way to evaluate progress. The waterways cleanup took time to get organized, set priorities and actually turn plans into reality. But I think I’m safe in saying this: 16.4 metric tons is nice, but it’s nothing to boast about. To satisfy the feds, Vermont will have to dramatically pick up the pace.
And the longer we take to get up to full speed, the more phosphorus flows into the lake — and the more damage is done.
So, no, Secretary Moore, you can’t expect the media to parrot your good-news narrative, even if it might, possibly, affect fee collections at some of your agency’s state parks.
Vermont has absolutely earned whatever reputation it may have for questionable water quality. If we are paying a bit of a reputational price, well, I can’t say we don’t deserve it.