Conservation Law Foundation file photo

Polluted Lake Champlain: How Can We Stop It?

Written By Jocelyn Kaplan

VERMONT–Have you ever driven across the causeway between Colchester and South Hero and been hit with the pungent smell of a chemical-like odor? Have you ever looked across the lake and noticed patches of green clinging to the surface of the once vibrant lake?

Lake Champlain, Vermont’s largest lake and greatest landmark is being polluted by an excess amount of phosphorus runoff.

Too much phosphorus promotes an overgrowth of algae blooms. The blooms grow on the surface of the water and block light from entering into the lake. The blocking of sunlight prevents plants from photosynthesis, causing decay and death.

The Department of Health in New York states, “Exposure to any blue-green algae blooms can cause health effects in people and animals when water with blooms is touched, swallowed, or when airborne droplets are inhaled.” Algae blooms are harmful to humans, as many types of blue-green algae contain toxins which cause digestive issues and breathing difficulties.” Animals swimming in the lake can also suffer from the toxins, which in severe cases if ingested can cause liver failure and seizures.

Heather Morely, AP Environmental Science teacher, noted that the amount of algae blooms are affected by climate change as temperatures continue to rise. She also commented on what farmers can do to help reduce runoff. “Riparian buffers, areas that absorb a lot of the runoff before they get to waterways, and strategies about the time of year manure is applied to fields.” I asked what her main concern was about phosphorus runoff, and she voiced troubles with wastewater treatments,“We should really be focusing on our wastewater treatments and applications of manure to lawns.”

The phosphorus intake is directly related to the amount of runoff into the lakes. Runoff is caused as snow melts and there is more water than the land can absorb. The excess water flows down the land into bodies of water.

The Lake Champlain Basin Program details how Lake Champlain is suffering from phosphorus runoff coming from all parts of human life. “Nonpoint sources of pollution, which include runoff from roads and developed areas, and from lawns, farmlands, and other rural areas contribute more than 90% of the phosphorus that reaches the Lake.”

Farmlands contribute a significant amount of runoff, with 38% of phosphorus in the lake stemming from nutrients within fertilizer and manure that wash off before reaching the soil.

Developed land also has a big impact on the sheer mass of phosphorus that is ending up in Champlain, taking responsibility for 16%! Developed areas like parking lots and roadways are impervious and shed water. Instead of the absorption through grass, the rainfall and snowmelt is sent towards the lakes. Intense storm flows, a direct consequence of rainfall building up with little to no absorption, causes a higher amount of erosion in stream-banks which sends more sediments into the lake.

Vermont citizens are concerned about the state of the lake’s environment, but many are unaware of how the increasing pollution is caused by farmlands and urbanization. Ally Clos, 17, was an anomaly who was able to cite important factors that contribute to the phosphorus runoff, but was unaware of how the phosphorus buildup could be prevented. “Isn’t runoff caused by farms? We learned that it was from the soil and cow manure that runs down and pollutes the lake. But I don’t know anything about how to stop buildup of phosphorus.”

CVU students Jimmy and Hayden, both 15, discussed how the pollution has affected their lives. They have both experienced the smell of phosphorus, and have been unable to swim in the lakes because of the pollution buildup. Hayden noted that his health has been impacted by the lake’s pollution, “I’ve gotten sick from the algae, I went home with a headache and ended up with a raspy throat.”

Educating Vermonters, specifically the farmers, on the harmful effects of phosphorus could be groundbreaking on preventing future pollution of the lakes. Cutting back from phosphorus fertilizers, and implanting sewage grates designed to catch runoff water would help all Vermont’s bodies of water.

While the issue can hardly be solved by one individual, being aware of the strategies designed to prevent pollution and educating others into considering and embedding these resources into our farming, gardening, and wastewater plants could help the lakes of Vermont tremendously.