A Lake in Distress

A blend of government agencies, local activists and committed residents is helping Lake Champlain recover from years of abuse

  • Gretel H. Schueller
  • Aug 01, 2005

AS A BOY in the 1930s, Abraham Brown fished along the Missisquoi River in his pastoral Vermont home of Enosburg Falls and imagined himself as Tom Sawyer. Today the village--population 1,500--and surrounding countryside look pretty much the same. The Missisquoi meanders westward from Enosburg Falls for 20 miles, passing bucolic pastures, cornfields, cow barns and some of the most fertile soil in the state before emptying into 435-square-mile Lake Champlain. In the marshes around the river's mouth, ospreys nest, loons troll for fish and largemouth bass nose about in the lake's steely-blue waters. Yet, Champlain is as smooth and illusory as a one-way mirror. Both river and lake are under assault.

The shallow bay at the mouth of the Missisquoi, in Champlain's northeastern corner, serves as the latest front in a lakewide battle against phosphorus, a nutrient that washes off the land and fertilizes aquatic plants with hazardous results. For six summers, a foul-smelling and sometimes toxic soup of blue-green algae fed by the phosphorus has smothered the bay's surface and carpeted its shores, closing beaches to swimmers and making some spots impassable even for boats. The damage is more than cosmetic: The algae decay in late summer, choking off the oxygen supply that fish need and forcing them to find new habitat. The algae also can wipe out populations of microscopic organisms, the all-important base of the lake's food chain, and produce neurotoxins that concentrate in algae-eating fish--one reason for Champlain's frequent fish-consumption warnings. At least four dogs have died from drinking water in bloom areas. Mary Watzin, director of the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory in Burlington, Vermont, calls the algal blooms "the single greatest threat to the lake."

Although Missisquoi Bay symbolizes what is wrong with the lake, current efforts to clean up Champlain's waters--besieged by ills ranging from pollution to invasive fish predators--are models of cooperation by individuals, groups and even whole towns. The United States' sixth-largest body of water might even serve as an example for managing other troubled aquatic ecosystems. "We're working with the U.N.'s Hydrological Society," says Bill Howland, director of the Lake Champlain Basin Program. "We're one of their model watersheds." Created by Congress in 1990, the basin program is a partnership among New York, Vermont, Québec, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government agencies. Howland also points to the enormous level of citizen participation--more than 25 local watershed groups are involved in restoration and monitoring efforts.

"Protecting Lake Champlain is something no group can do alone," says Monty Fischer, senior liaison for Conservation Programs at NWF's Montpelier, Vermont, office. "Nor can a single state or even nation solve the lake's problems. Everyone concerned has to work together."

Individuals also are stepping forward to save the lake, including 87-year-old Abraham Brown. His 28-acre parcel along the Missisquoi is a refuge in the making, protected by a conservation easement. Armed with shovels, hundreds of volunteers--many of them local school students--have spent more than 600 hours there planting thousands of saplings to replace woodlands cleared long ago. Those trees will help stabilize the eroded stream banks, from which phosphorus-rich soil sloughs into the water. "It's a large, encompassing project to restore it to what it was like prior to European settlement," says forester Nancy Patch, who is managing the restoration. When complete, this floodplain forest will do plenty of good things, such as trap sediments and control floodwaters. Less sediment in the river also means less phosphorus.

The largest source of phosphorus in Champlain is agricultural runoff. New York is the nation's third-leading dairy state, Vermont is second, and Québec has the most dairy farms of any Canadian province. Some 3,000 farms border the lake and its environs, contributing about 55 percent of the lake's yearly total load of phosphorus.

Earl Fournier is a fourth-generation dairy farmer with a new-generation approach. He grazes about 150 Holstein and Jersey cows on his 222-acre farm bordering Missisquoi Bay. "The state used to give us phosphorus," Fournier recalls. "We used to load it in the manure and spread it." About 12 years ago he began "nutrient management," and recently he shifted to organic farming. "I'm very concerned about keeping farming sustainable," he says.

Fournier's cows produce 163,000 gallons of milk yearly. Each cow also produces 80 pounds of manure a day. Rather than letting the manure run off the land and into the lake, Fournier collects it and loads it into a specially lined manure pit about 15 feet deep for spreading later on fields that need nutrients. "If utilized properly, manure is not a bad thing," Fournier says.

He no longer uses any pesticides or fertilizers and has created about 15 acres of buffer zone--now a wetland for ducks--to minimize runoff. Healthy soil, he says, stays put and holds onto its phosphorus. Fournier also lets his cows forage, instead of feeding them phosphorus-fortified feed concentrates. That diet change alone makes their manure a lot less menacing: More than 60 percent of the phosphorus in dairy rations passes through a cow unused and into manure. Through voluntary actions, farmers like Fournier have reduced phosphorus loads by roughly 16 tons per year.

With its pastoral qualities and rolling countryside, Champlain has attracted a burgeoning population that underlies lake pollution problems. Between 1950 and 2000, the basin population grew more than 60 percent. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Vermont lost an average of 1,540 acres of agricultural land to development yearly. Since 1992, the annual loss has increased to 2,560 acres.

The lake basin is home to some 619,000 people, about 200,000 of whom depend on the lake for drinking water. All of them rely on the lake to meet one need or another, from recreation to industry, increasing the burden for Champlain. Flushing lawn fertilizers and chemicals through the watershed, urban stormwater runoff is responsible for 37 percent of lake phosphorus. An urban acre produces up to five times as much phosphorus runoff as does an agricultural acre.

Vermont, New York and Québec in 1988 signed a "memorandum of understanding" that pledged to reduce phosphorus levels. In 1996, the three parties, along with EPA, drew up a strategy for attack--the Lake Champlain Basin Clean Up Plan.

Overall, the plan has reduced phosphorus inputs by nearly 39 tons per year since 1996, far exceeding the 2001 reduction target of 15.8 tons annually. About 23 of those tons came from so-called point sources--wastewater and sewer treatment plants--that had gone through a $28-million upgrade of phosphorus removal technologies. As a result, point sources now account for less than 20 percent of the total amount of phosphorus entering Lake Champlain.

However, reductions from non-point sources such as storm runoff have been more elusive. As population continues to grow and farms turn into subdivisions and shopping centers, land-use changes are offsetting some of the gains achieved. Watzin has found that when rain falls, levels of phosphorus, bacteria and other chemicals in storm-water overflows surge. Some storm-water samples from Burlington show phosphorus levels several hundred times higher than the amounts allowed in the lake itself. Nonpoint sources, Watzin says, remain among "the most vexing problems facing Vermont."

The intensity of the problem is itself spurring improvements. A particularly nasty bloom in 2003 on the Canadian side of Missisquoi Bay, where strict regulations govern runoff, prompted Québec environmental officials to condemn the bloom as an "ecological catastrophe." Vermont state and federal authorities responded with a ramped up phosphorus-reduction program, with emphasis on the bay, and allocated funds to help farmers create additional buffer strips.

Lake restoration offers great promise to residents like charter-boat captain Rich Greenough, whose livelihood is based on catching fish. Lake Champlain was once a fishing paradise. Early settlers told stories of loading 20-pound salmon into wagons with pitchforks and of horses shying away from the force of salmon pressing against their legs as they crossed streams. Years of pollution and overfishing destroyed the lake's living bounty, but now recovery of lake trout and salmon are improving under careful state management. Nevertheless, Greenough often encounters a catch he does not want: sea lampreys, eel-like aquatic creatures that attach themselves to fish and feed on their blood and other tissues, often killing them in the process.

Native freshwater lampreys should post no threat to native fish, but sea lampreys--which apparently reached Lake Champlain through the Champlain Canal, built in the early 1800s to connect the lake to the Hudson River--are another matter. Once established in the lake, their population exploded. Greenough pulled in nearly 2,000 voracious sea lampreys last year. With more than 40 years of fishing under his belt, he says anglers have found sea lampreys and the telltale gaping wounds on every kind of fish. "Seventy to 80 percent of the lake trout have hits," he says.

"Research shows that fish with one sea lamprey wound have about a 60 percent mortality rate," says David Tilton, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Some of the fish we find have multiple wounds. We have to conclude the mortality rate is high." One lamprey can kill up to 40 pounds of fish in the 12 to 18 months of its life in the lake, hindering lake trout and salmon restoration. The main method of lamprey control is a pesticide known as TFM. Assessments of sea lamprey wounds on lake trout and salmon indicate that sea lamprey attacks are down because of chemical treatments in Vermont and New York streams.

J. Ellen Marsden, a fisheries biologist at the University of Vermont, is examining alternatives to TFM, which kills not only lampreys but also jeopardizes several threatened and endangered species, including mussels, darters, young lake sturgeon and the nonparasitic American brook lamprey. Marsden has found some promise in controls such as barriers placed across streams to keep lampreys from spawning and traps stretched across small tributaries. She says the most promising new method is a male sex pheromone. Early experiments show that traps containing males, with their arousing scent, capture more females than do traditional net traps.

Lake activists also have scored a victory against another nonnative species that has threatened lake habitat. Last summer hundreds of volunteers from four organizations painstakingly pulled 152,000 pounds of invasive water chestnut plants from more than 80 spots around the lake. Operating what amounts to an amphibious lawn mower, mechanical harvesting crews removed another 2.5 million pounds. This annual aquatic species invaded southern Lake Champlain at least 50 years ago, growing into dense mats that turn valuable wetland habitat into waste by killing native plants. Each year, bit by bit, volunteers on both sides of the lake have managed to push back the water chestnut's range. They even put the remains of the nuisance plant to good use--several local farms receive the plants for compost.

Lake Champlain, lying among lands and waterways controlled by the governmental entities of two nations, illustrates that lake problems honor no borders. But the lake also shows promise for what committed citizens can achieve. "Protecting Lake Champlain has brought together a coalition of agencies and individuals that may be matched elsewhere but not exceeded," says NWF's Fischer, who served for five years as chair of the Vermont Citizens' Advisory Committee on the Future of Lake Champlain. "Damaging the lake was the work of many different forces and interests over the course of many years. Restoring it will be the result of decades of focused clean-up on behalf of our children's children. Perhaps at no time in the past have we had such a firm basis for being optimistic about the lake's future, thanks to the exemplary political will of elected officials and the dedication of scientists and citizen activists."

Gretel H. Schueller lives on the Vermont shores of Lake Champlain.

NWF Takes Action: Restoring Lake Champlain

NWF has been working to restore bald eagles to Vermont, "the only state in the lower 48 that does not have a nesting population of bald eagles," according to NWF biologist Margaret Fowle. But that may soon change. Last year, NWF released eight eagles raised in captivity in the area. This summer, as many as a dozen more will be released. Numerous groups are helping to support the reintroduction initiative, with NWF coordinating and managing the 3-year effort. Although adult eagles sometimes fly through the state, none have successfully nested there since the 1940s. "The overall health of Lake Champlain has improved enough to support eagles," Fowle says. The bald eagle program is one of several wildlife and habitat restoration efforts NWF is involved with in the Lake Champlain region. To learn more see our Wildlife site.

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