VERMONT — For three days early this August Ohio’s fourth-largest city had no drinking water. Toledo’s tap water, supplied by Lake Erie, was contaminated with toxins produced by blue-green algae, forcing 500,000 residents to turn off their taps.
This problem-causing algae, also known as cyanobacteria, is becoming a concern for municipalities across the country that draw water from lakes. The pollution has not spared Vermont — Lake Champlain is known to contain the same toxin-producing algae that caused the water shut-off in Toledo.
Coming in contact with toxins produced by blue-green algae can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, throat and respiratory tract in humans. If inhaled in water droplets, the toxins can cause allergic-like symptoms such as a runny nose or sore throat. Ingesting the toxins could lead to severe stomach problems, diarrhea and vomiting and liver damage. Animal deaths have also been attributed to consuming large amounts of accumulated algae scum in Lake Champlain — two dogs died from blue-green algae poisoning, one in the summer of 1999, the other in 2000.
After Toledo’s water crisis these health risks have led many residents living around Lake Champlain to question the safety of their drinking water. This public concern is what James Ehlers has been hoping to see.
“The Toledo situation has been sort of a sick blessing in that it’s elevated the public consciousness,” said Ehlers, director of Lake Champlain International, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting, restoring and revitalizing Lake Champlain and its surrounding communities.
There is no doubt in Ehlers’ mind that in the future Vermonters living near Lake Champlain could be confronted with a drinking water dilemma similar to Toledo’s. He points to a study on water quality involving Missisquoi Bay, where drinking water contamination has already become a health concern for residents.
The study, run in 2013 and published in “Science of the Total Environment,” was conducted on residents using water from three bodies of water, including Missisquoi Bay in Lake Champlain. Residents whose water supply came from the bay experienced higher instances of gastrointestinal symptoms and other symptoms such as muscle pain, skin symptoms and ear symptoms. This study involved subjects in Quebec; there are no documented cases of human illness related to blue-green algae on the Vermont side of the bay, according to the Vermont Department of Health.
Ellen Parr Doering, assistant director of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection, says there has never been cause to alert residents to stop using tap water coming from the lake.
“There’s never been an issue with our public water supply but … with climate change, nutrient levels being what they are, there’s concern,” she said. “So we’re monitoring it and we’re trying to have a proactive thing in place if the ultimate nightmare occurs, which hopefully it never will.”
This nightmare would be a situation similar to that of Toledo — water so dangerous to humans due to blue-green algae toxins, caused by an excess of the nutrient phosphorous, that residents would not be able to use their tap water. Lake Champlain hasn’t reached that level yet. There are much higher concentrations of phosphorous in Lake Erie than in Lake Champlain.
MONITORING THE LAKE
Aquatic biologist Angela Shambaugh has been monitoring the water quality of Lake Champlain with the University of Vermont since 2002 and now manages the state-run monitoring program. She has not observed an increase in algae blooms. She said the algae growth “is fairly consistent, in that the areas where we were expecting to see larger thicker blooms remain the same.”
However, one of the main difficulties she and her fellow biologists have lies in determining whether or not the frequency of the blooms has changed. Blue-green algae has periodically been reported in Addison County at Button Bay in Ferrisburgh. Moriah Beach and Port Henry, both in New York, have also been closed recently due to algae contamination.
These blooms are monitored by trained volunteers, who visually monitor the lake weekly, looking for signs of blooms. The state, along with the Lake Champlain Committee, an organization dedicated to protecting Lake Champlain’s health and accessibility, have 13 stations along the shore of the lake. Weekly samples are collected at these stations and analyzed for blue-green algae and the toxins it produces. Shambaugh believes this current level of monitoring is sufficient.
“What has been shown over the last two years is ... that the conditions are generally safe,” she said. “We’ve got really good coverage beyond what we could do before, so I’m pretty satisfied with that.”
Cyanobacteria are generally difficult to monitor, according to Shambaugh.
“The nature of cyanobacteria is such that they can come and go very quickly depending on the conditions … sometimes even increased monitoring isn’t going to mean that we’re going to detect them any more rapidly than we do now, so I’m quite happy with the monitoring level we have.”
Ehlers views the algae monitoring program as totally useless. In his opinion, monitoring of the water is too infrequent and too much of it is conducted visually by volunteers.
“They have a monitoring program that consists mostly of lay people who visually observe ... I don’t think that’s sufficient, and they don’t monitor on a daily basis,” Ehlers said. They cannot “empirically say that they have not observed an increase (in algae) because there are not people out there taking daily observations.”
In addition to biologists who monitor the lake, water treatment plants are running their own tests. In general the number of people drawing directly from Lake Champlain is small. Town officials in Orwell and Shoreham said lakeside residents get their water from wells and a public water supply, respectively, rarely directly from Lake Champlain. Not counting those who have their own intake systems, Jim Faye, general manager of the Champlain Water District, estimates that roughly 140,000 people rely on water from Lake Champlain. The water district serves 70,000 people in Chittenden County — about half the people that draw water out of the lake.
CDW has protocols for weekly algal scans and has run tests on two toxins produced by blue-green algae: microcystin and anatoxin. The 55 microcystin and 18 anatoxin tests using water from Shelburne Bay, the company’s intake location, detected neither toxin.
Jeff Stone, operator of Vergennes Panton Water District, has never experienced an algae toxin contamination problem in his water supply from the lake either. He relies on state testing of the surrounding areas and says his organization would run tests if an issue ever arose.
If algae toxins were detected in the water supply, the Vergennes Panton Water District has water waiting in storage to be used, since boiling, household disinfectants and personal filtration systems do not render it safe to consume. Stone said that his filtration system should get most of the contaminate out. When asked if it is possible to filter out all toxins in water contaminated by this algae, he replied that many water treatment facilities have different filtering systems. Stone also feels that his water district has no threat since it intakes water from a relatively safe depth — deep enough to be free from algae.
Faye also attributes the lack of detected algae pollution in Champlain Water District’s water supply to the location of its intake pipe.
“What the difference is here is the quality of the water around Lake Champlain — because it’s so large — is going to change with location,” Faye said. “Champlain Water District’s intake location in Shelburne Bay is a half mile out from shore in around 70 feet of water.”
The depth of the intake makes it less likely for the algae to contaminate the drinking water, since blue-green algae floats, according to Faye.
Ehlers argues otherwise, citing a study published in 2003 in Hydrobiologia showing the highest levels of microcystins found at levels between 20 and 25 meters (66-82 feet) deep in three Turkish freshwater lakes. Champlain Water District’s intake is at 75 feet.
Shambaugh confirms the fact that algae, due to the gases they contain, can migrate vertically, although they are still subject to wind and waves. In Missisquoi Bay blue-green algae migrates to the bottom of the bay overnight to restock on phosphorous. She says that the state has informed water supply companies of this fact.
“We have talked to our water suppliers about it and they’re aware of it,” she said. “We’re trying to improve the communication between the science end of things and the water suppliers ... because the ecology of these (algae and algae toxins) and how they behave in the water is very different from other contaminants water suppliers have to work with.”
Faye doesn’t believe Champlain Water District to be at risk.
“For the Champlain Water District, all of our testing over the last 10 years would say we are not at risk for this algae toxin,” he said.
His agency’s testing for microcystin or anatoxin, the toxins released by blue-green algae, is already above and beyond what is required — testing for these toxins is not mandatory for public water systems in the United States. For that reason Ehlers questions why the Champlain Water District tests its water for the toxins so regularly if it is at no risk.
Faye “will tell you that he’s probably not at great risk,” said Ehlers. “I understand why he would say that, but he also tests weekly for algae, so why would he do that?”
Public concern over water quality has been rising along with the phosphorus levels causing algae growth. Phosphorous levels have been increasing since the 1990s due to a number of factors, including an increase in rainfall, urban development, and changes in crops and farmland. Runoff from farms, including fertilizer, cow manure and other animal wastes, contributes phosphorous to Lake Champlain, which in turn feeds the blue-green algae.
Some of the waste comes from human waste that gets into the water supply. For instance, the Agency of Natural Resources reported on its website this week that sewage combined with rainwater runoff had overflowed into Otter Creek in Rutland on this past Sunday. That runoff, although diluted, will flow to Lake Champlain.
For Vermont Commissioner of Environmental Conservation David Mears the solution to the blue-green algae problem lies in combatting these rising phosphorous levels. He hopes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will approve a TMDL, or a total maximum daily load provision, for Lake Champlain this coming fall or early next year. A TMDL becomes necessary when a body of water is not meeting the EPA’s standards, as Lake Champlain is not, and aims to reduce pollution to meet standards. If the EPA approves the TMDL for Lake Champlain, Mears expects to see algae levels reduced.
“I would expect that we would see significant reductions in the frequency and the number of blue-green algae blooms,” he said. “We’ll never eliminate them … they’re natural organisms that already exist in the lake.”
Lake Champlain International’s Ehlers is not comforted by the assurance that blue-green algae is naturally occurring.
“Yeah. So is cancer,” he said.
Ehlers does not trust the TMDL to subdue the rising phosphorous levels. The way he sees it, we will have to remove phosphorus from the lake to make any progress.
“The only way to address this and solve this issue is with a totally new paradigm of waste management where the waste is no longer actually considered a waste, it’s a commodity,” Ehlers said. He is referring to the fact that the phosphorous polluting the lake in the form of waste was once sold and bought in a different form, such as fertilizer, only for the leftovers to become waste in the lake. In some cases he would like to see experiments on new methods for removing phosphorus from the lake.
“There’s a real social imperative in that you have Americans, in one of the most highly developed prosperous nations in the world, going without access to clean water as if we’re like a developing nation,” Ehlers said. “That doesn’t strike people as absolutely insane?”
Despite their different takes on the problem, Mears shared a similar sentiment.
“Even if we didn’t have the blue-green algae blooms, we have too much water pollution flowing into the lake, and we can do a lot better in terms of reducing those pollution levels,” Mears said. “I do think it will happen, the question is how quickly and how much.”
In the meantime, Lake Champlain International, with Ehlers at the helm, is working to combat the pollution he doesn’t believe the EPA’s approval of the TMDL for Lake Champlain will be effective or quick enough to reduce.
“In some places in the deeper parts (of the lake) where that phosphorus can stay locked up, yeah, we won’t see as many problems — as quickly,” he said. “But in the many shallow water portions of the lake … they’re on a steady path to decline unless we radically change our land use policies.”
In a metaphor he has used before, Ehlers warns that the current regulations and testing system are not up to date enough to be trusted.
“It’s like trying to drive while looking through your rearview mirror,” he said. “You’ve got to look out the windshield. I’m not going to take my kids to the beach based on samples that are three days old when I know that the water quality can change from hour to hour.”