Battling ‘putrid’ outbreaks on the Adirondack Park’s eastern flank, New York and Vermont advocates struggle to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain
By RY RIVARD
A few billion years ago, cyanobacteria were creators. The colorful bacteria produced much of the planet’s early oxygen.
Now, they are increasingly known as something else—destroyers.
In lakes around the world and close to home, the tiny floating cells threaten public health and property values. That’s because toxic outbreaks or “blooms” of cyanobacteria, often mistaken for and even called algae, are getting worse.
In Ohio, residents of Toledo couldn’t drink their water for several days in 2014, because it was drawn from a bacteria-filled Lake Erie. In New Jersey, bacteria blooms closed beaches around the state’s largest lake last summer.
New York has put a dozen lakes on a cyanobacteria watch list, including several of the Finger Lakes and two Adirondack lakes.
The first local lake, Lake George—assiduously guarded for decades by strict environmental regulations—has never had a confirmed outbreak of cyanobacteria, but such a “harmful algal bloom” could be devastating to a lake prized for its clear waters.
Ironically, Lake George’s waters are painstakingly protected only to drain straight into the second local lake on the list, a lake in crisis, Lake Champlain.
Bacteria in Champlain—cupped by New York, Vermont and Quebec—are feeding on polluted runoff from around the lake, especially Vermont’s dairyland, and thriving in water that is warming along with the rest of the globe.
“They just want to eat and grow and be warm,” said Natalie Flores, a University of Vermont researcher studying the dangers of cyanobacteria.
When they do all that, their blooms close beaches and put public health officials on alert because of the tens of thousands of people who drink water from the lake.
Number of people who drink Lake Champlain water: About 150,000, according to the Lake Champlain Basin Program.
On the lake’s New York side, blooms have been spotted around the Adirondack hamlet of Port Henry every recent summer and closed beaches at least once most summers.
In reports published by Vermont, trained watchers around the lake have described Champlain in dispiriting terms during blooms that cover sections of the lake and its bays: “putrid,” “smells bad,” “unbelievable stench,” “sections look like broccoli, others like green paint spill,” “pea soup,” “9th day of green,” “awfully discouraging,” “pictures don’t do it justice.” One volunteer reported that they’d like to sample part of the lake for testing but, “I could not get a cup of water without getting in and I was not doing that.”
Various arms of the government have worried about algae in Champlain since at least the early 1900s, when the United States Geological Survey was dispatched to look into “troublesome alga” in the lake. Action took decades, though. Burlington was dumping untreated sewage into the lake until the middle of the century.
Now, a more serious and sweeping attempt to control the largest source of pollution—runoff from nearby dairy farms—is one of the major political issues around the lake. It is especially so in Vermont where dairy is a literal and figurative sacred cow.
But other industries now hang in the balance, too. In an area dependent on tourism, the blooms aren’t just an inconvenience—they threaten a way of life.
“No one wants to move to a lake house when the lake has an algae bloom all year long,” said Anne Schechinger, an economist at the Environmental Working Group, a national nonprofit focused on clean water.
Twenty years ago, several dogs died along Champlain’s shores after swallowing cyanobacteria toxins.
The deaths woke up public health officials then but, if anything, the blooms have become more noticeable and likely worse since.
Laurel Casey lives on the Vermont side of the lake, not far from the Lake Champlain Bridge that crosses over from New York’s Crown Point peninsula.
She calls herself a failed cabaret singer. She said she depends on two things for income: her Social Security check and summer tourists who rent a cottage on lakeside property she inherited from her parents.
Casey worries about the blooms on the lake.
She wouldn’t be alone in suffering economic loss from the lake’s woes. In the northern Vermont town of Georgia, three dozen homes near a polluted bay each lost $50,000 in value because of the pollution.
“It keeps me up at night, because, should I sell before everyone figures it out?” Casey said one cold mid-November night.
A dairy cow produces about 120 pounds of manure a day. There are about 130,000 dairy cows in Vermont. Many of them are in Addison County, where Casey lives.
Their manure contains phosphorus, an essential chemical known by scientists as a “nutrient,” a friendly label that can be confusing as governments spend millions a year to keep “nutrients” out of the lake. Cyanobacteria love the stuff and when manure lies exposed on a farm during a rainstorm, it can wash right into the lake.
Since the dog deaths, officials around the lake have stepped up their efforts to track and prevent blooms, in part by cutting phosphorus.
Results are mixed, at best.
“It has been extraordinarily slow going,” said Elena Mihaly, an attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.
New York and Vermont worked together on a major phosphorus reduction plan in 2002. The plan required states upgrade wastewater treatment plants, restore natural habitat, ensure farmers do more to keep manure from being flushed into the river, and prevent urban flooding that drags pollution into the lake. But the Conservation Law Foundation challenged Vermont’s part in court for being too weak. The federal government handed the state a stronger set of rules to follow in 2016.
Now two states are trying to clean up the same lake using plans and numbers created a decade apart. The plans don’t agree on basic things, like how much pollution goes into the lake each year.
The best guess is about 2 million pounds of phosphorus, about 70 percent of it from Vermont. To do its part, Vermont needs to reduce pollution coming from its shores by a third.
The state’s preliminary estimate for how much phosphorus it has been able to keep from running into the lake in a typical year is about 35,000 pounds, thanks to new regulations and state and federal spending on water quality improvement projects. New York says it has been able to prevent slightly more runoff, about 40,000 pounds per year.
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Research on phosphorus levels in the lake’s tributaries in both states shows no overall trend. Worse, some tributaries around the lake seem to carry even more phosphorus now than before.
Julie Moore, the head of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, said it’s too soon to tell how well the state is doing.
“We have very robust tracking of the projects and programs we’re putting on the ground, but 95 percent of phosphorus pollution is weather driven, so we have to overcome the inherent noisiness of weather,” she said.
But the weather is unlikely to cooperate. Officials are seeing more rain and storms so intense they’re called “rain bombs,” a recipe for uncontrolled flashes of water that sweep manure off fields and urban pollution into the lake. By one estimate, phosphorus levels could increase by 30 percent due to climate change in coming decades.
All this means the food for cyanobacteria keeps coming into the lake.
Angela Shambaugh, a scientist with the state of Vermont, said blooms are happening later into the year. In 2019, for instance, blooms were showing up in fall, though they used to end with the summer.
Blooms also seem to be starting earlier, though that’s harder to ascertain. Both the later and earlier blooms would likely tie into the global warming that’s giving bacteria more weeks of favorably warm water to grow, which means a better chance that bacteria will ruin someone’s trip to the lake.
Shambaugh says when she hears from people who are afraid to come to Vermont because of beach closures, she tells them to come anyway. If a beach is closed, there’s still other stuff to do, like hike. Plus, she said, there are blooms elsewhere.
“My advice is you probably have cyanobacteria blooms in your state; learn what they look like,” Shambaugh said.
In Vermont, it sometimes looks like the whole of state government is focused on the lake’s problems. Tourism, after all, helps support some 30,000 Vermont jobs and much of it happens around the lake. According to one study, Vermont risks losing hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tourism spending if the lake becomes even slightly dirtier-looking.
In 2019, Vermont lawmakers set aside millions more toward what is intended to become a $50 million-a-year fund to pay for water quality projects—a plan designed to help satisfy federal mandates to improve the lake. New York is also spending millions to curb blooms, but officials are generally not as focused on Champlain specifically.
Vermont’s auditor, Douglas Hoffer, criticized his state for spending more money so far on upgrading wastewater treatment plants—rather than trying to reduce runoff from dairy farms—even though farming is a far larger source of phosphorus pollution than human sewage.
“The price of milk doesn’t include the cost of cleaning up this problem, and that’s true of so many industries that got a pass for 50, 100 years,” he said.
Other Vermont officials pushed back, arguing that there are other reasons to upgrade sewage treatment plants, like meeting stringent regulations and because inadequate plants can release other pollution besides phosphorus that can also close beaches, like E coli.
Vermont is also working on new rules to make urban property owners contain runoff. When rain lands or snow melts on concrete and asphalt, it sweeps pollution into the waterways. Preventing this might cost $50,000 an acre, leaving hundreds of property owners across the state on the hook for roughly a quarter billion dollars in upgrades.
In the meantime, the blooms are still coming and public scrutiny has largely settled on farms, which are the source of about 40 percent of Vermont’s phosphorus runoff. That’s set up a showdown of sorts between water and milk.
Michael Colby, the head of Regeneration Vermont, a nonprofit that takes on big dairy companies, said the state can have large dairy farms or it can have clean water.
“That’s the choice,” he said. “You can’t have both.”
Chuck Ross, a former state agriculture official who now leads the University of Vermont’s extension, said that’s far too simple.
“Does it mean that we have to do things differently than we do today? Yes,” Ross said. “Does it mean we have to stop farming? No.”
Vermont farmers are eventually expected to reduce their phosphorus runoff by more than half while other sectors have to make relatively smaller cuts.
“So you can look at it that agriculture is subsidizing the other sectors,” Ross said.
Part of Vermont’s problem is past practices, some of which were encouraged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which decades ago subsidized farmers who imported phosphorus fertilizer and dumped it on their fields.
Even if officials around the lake succeed in curbing new phosphorus runoff, it could still take a long time for the lake to bounce back because of all that legacy pollution in the soil or already in the lake.
Find New York’s action plans for managing harmful algal blooms online.
Eric Howe, the head of the Lake Champlain Basin Program, which helps monitor and improve the lake, said everyone around the lake needs to focus on restoring important natural habitat.
“If we wanted the lake to go back to pristine condition, then humans would need to pack up and move out of the watershed,” Howe said. “That is obviously not going to happen and nobody wants that to happen, so what we want to do is reforest the critical areas that have the potential to contribute more pollutants to the lake.”
Casey, the singer and lakeside cottage owner, blames a 450-cow dairy farm uphill of her house for runoff that affects her personally and the lake generally. She admits to being a bit out there (she said she once put manure on herself to show up to a public meeting on pollution).
Now, she has realized such tactics may not be the best ones.
“Crazy isn’t the way to do it,” Casey said. “Legislation is.”
Her neighbors, the Ouellette family, owners of the Iroquois Acres farm, react as anyone might when a neighbor starts accusing them. One of the Ouellettes sent Casey a message that said Casey ought to show visitors her septic system. The point was that it’s not just cow manure that runs into Lake Champlain. Leaking septics at old lake homes and overflowing sewage systems also mean there’s human sewage in the lake, though that’s a much smaller problem overall than farm runoff.
Another Ouellette, Stephanie Ouellette Pope, said the family has looked to buy a manure injection system, which does pretty much what it says: injects manure into the soil to help crops grow, rather than spreading it on the field where it might be washed away.
But Ouellette Pope said the system she looked at would cost nearly a quarter-million dollars, plus the tractors needed to run it.
That’s hard to stomach right now because, for several years, the cost to make a wholesale unit of milk has exceeded the price that farmers can sell the milk for. Basically, cows aren’t going anywhere and farmers are more efficient, so the milk supply is up. Yet consumers want nut milks, like almond milk, instead of the real thing, so demand is down.
“When the price of milk is $15 for a five-year average, you do the math,” Ouellette Pope said.
In Chazy, on the lake’s New York side, it was mid-November and farmer Tony LaPierre was thinking about his manure pit, which holds 3 million gallons.
“You don’t want to be caught with minimal storage heading into the wintertime, because you’re creating too much of a risk,” he said.
Farmers spend a surprising amount of time thinking about this crap. Manure is already valuable, since they can spread it as fertilizer. But it can quickly become a liability if farmers don’t plan ahead. If there’s more rain than expected and their pits fill up, there’s trouble. The manure runs off into the lake.
That means the changing weather is a problem for farmers, too.
LaPierre hopes for a day when his manure could be used to generate electricity, something that some other farmers are already doing. Then it could be even more valuable and less of a liability.
“Someday it may be more valuable than the milk itself,” LaPierre said.