Watershed program releases mixed 2021 report
By Brandon Loomis
The state of the lake is … complicated.
Lake Champlain, a 120-mile-long treasure with 587 miles of shoreline shared by New York, Vermont and Quebec, provides mostly clean water, abundant fishing and 54 public beaches. It’s also adapting to dozens of destructive invasive species and tons of pollution – in the lake itself and from the 14,700 miles of streams and rivers that pour 2 trillion gallons of water into it every year.
In 1990, Congress designated the lake as a resource of national significance. That led to creation of the Lake Champlain Basin Program, which coordinates research and protection efforts throughout the watershed. Last week, the program released its latest “State of the Lake” report, which it produces every few years. This year’s version finds a lake that routinely produces safe drinking water, swimming and fishing, but that also has problems that are likely to worsen as the world continues warming.
It’s now available online, and here’s some of what it has to say about the big lake that forms much of the Adirondack Park’s eastern boundary:
While drinking untreated water is not recommended, the lake provides safe and reliable water to 145,000 people, according to the report. Throughout the basin there are 100 public water suppliers who pump, treat and deliver drinking water, and required testing of that water for 86 potential contaminants rarely finds any exceeding mandated limits.
That doesn’t mean the lake is pure.
This year’s report lists chloride for the first time, as a result of an upswing from winter road salt applications. Lakewide, chloride levels remain well below drinking water standards, but have steadily increased over the last decade. Vermont’s Winooski River dumped about 20,000 metric tons of chloride in the lake per year – roughly twice what it did in the early 1990s. This contamination, which can harm zooplankton and fish, is also known to come reach the lake from New York.
“We know, for instance, that application of road salt is really high in the Adirondacks,” said Matthew Vaughan, the basin program’s technical coordinator. The program has supported a project in Washington County, Vermont, to switch from rock salt to brine, using less salt to coat road surfaces.
The report notes improvements in sewage treatment to reduced phosphorus pollution, a nutrient that can cause algal blooms and other problems. Nonetheless, phosphorus also comes from farms and other sources across the land, and some areas including the narrow south and the shallow northeast bays of the lake have frequently gathered more than what established limits recommend. This is especially true after severe rainfall events, which Vaughan said could point to trouble ahead. “We’re already seeing the effects of climate change, with more ran and more intense rainfall,” he said.
Cyanobacteria, typically called an algal bloom when colonies grow large enough to resemble pea soup or paint, can become dangerous to swimmers and animals if they contain toxins. Blooms occur when nutrients and conditions in the water – warm temperatures or lack of wind – are right, often in the summer or fall.
During the typical swim season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 17 routinely monitored beaches were open 97% of the time from 2018 to 2020, according to the report. Cyanobacteria caused closures 2% of the time (coliform 1% of the time).
Bloom frequency varies by lake region, with most reported blooms happening on the Vermont side. Some 98% of reports since 2013 in the main lake section, which includes New York’s Adirondack Coast, have concluded the water was “generally safe.” In the northeastern lake, though, at St. Albans and Missisquoi bays respectively, the same was true 77% and 79% of the time. Beaches have occasionally closed on the New York side, including some days last summer at Point Au Roche State Park.
The program has not documented the effects of climate change on these blooms, though Vaughan said it’s clear that air temperatures are rising and influence the water.
“We know that cyanobacteria blooms are more likely to proliferate when water temperatures are high,” he said, “especially when winds are low.”
Lake Champlain does not freeze over as it used to. In the early 1900s, it froze over from shore to shore every winter (12 miles at the widest point). Now it’s roughly every four years, said Meg Modley Gilbertson, who manages LCBP’s aquatic invasive species program. By 2050, scientists project, it will freeze once every decade.
Warming also threatens Northern hardwood forests with drier growing seasons, she said, and forest pests such as hemlock woolly adelgid and emerald ash borer could further trash the woodlands. This will alter what runs off into the rivers and ultimately the lake.
“Our changing climate is clearly being reflected in Lake Champlain,” said Julie Moore, head of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. It will affect lake ecology and recreation in ways not yet known, she said.
Fishhook waterflea invaded the lake in 2018, becoming the 51st nonnative to alter the food web, according to the report. It has affected the lake’s phytoplankton community, and is outcompeting a previous invader, the spiny waterflea. They and their eggs can go undetected when transported in a boat’s bilge, motor or bait bucket, but become obvious when their barbed tails cling to each other and they amass on fishing gear.
Zebra mussels have spread through the lake and are filtering plankton to further reduce the water’s food supply, while nonnative alewives have surpassed native smelt as the primary food source for Atlantic salmon and lake trout.
Removal of water chestnut over the last couple of decades has succeeded in pushing the worst infestations — mats resulting in 25% coverage — south from Crown Point to the Dresden Narrows, LCBP reports.
The report suggests a continuing battle to prevent the spread of new species, with plants like hydrilla and fish like the round goby getting closer to the lake. From 2018 through 2020, the program found, 16% of roughly 94,000 boats that water stewards surveyed at boat launches carried invasive species.
Wild lake trout, eliminated from the lake more than a century ago, have made a comeback after years of stocking effort — enough so that next year the states plan to reduce stocking by a third to keep the population in balance with prey fish, the report states.
With dam removals and culvert construction, the report notes, Atlantic salmon have regained much of the river spawning habitat they once had in the basin. A major exception is the Saranac River, where there is continuing discussion about helping fish pass dams. “More work is needed in these systems to restore salmon access to spawning grounds,” LCBP writes.
Generally, the program reports, Lake Champlain fish can be part of a healthy diet as long as anglers match the number of heed advisories for contaminants. Mercury tends to be less present in smaller fish such as yellow perch, and more abundant in large predators like lake trout.
“Fishing is an important way that people connect with the lake’s ecosystem,” Vaughan said.
How you can help
Protecting Lake Champlain has as much to do with the 8,234 square miles that funnel water toward it as with the lake itself. Of that land, 37% is in New York, mostly in the Adirondacks, extending as far as the land around the Saranac Chain of Lakes. Nearly 40% of the basin is protected by some form of conservation program, LCBP calculates.
“We need more stewards in the upper reaches,” said Colleen Hickey, the program’s education and outreach coordinator.
The report recommends several ways to protect the water that eventually ends up in Lake Champlain:
- Test soil for nutrient needs before adding fertilizer that could run off into streams; use compost and soil aeration instead.
- Raise your lawnmower’s blade to 3 inches and leave grass clippings on the lawn for healthier grass with deeper roots to hold more water and reduce storm runoff.
- Wash your car on the lawn to keep detergents from running down driveways and toward streams.
- Plant native vegetation to create barriers, especially along shores and rivers, to reduce erosion.
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