Editorial: What Vermont needs on water quality is a change in attitude

What’s encouraging about Vermont’s Lakeshore Protection Act, which was passed a year ago and became law last July, is that the state bureaucracy has implemented rules that are working to accommodate landowners’ desires while also mitigating further harm to water quality. (See story in today’s edition.)
What’s discouraging is how much runoff continues to flow into the state’s lakes and streams that cause degradation of water quality, and how far behind Vermont is in terms of implementing measures to correct the problem.
Many New England states passed lakeshore protection acts years ago and have been working to mitigate the effects of lakeshore and stream erosion for years. And while many of Vermont’s lakes and streams are clean enough to be enjoyable and garner praise from visitors, that is less true that it once was and the trend in many areas of the state is less than optimistic.
 Yet, over in neighboring Lake George, which sports some of the clearest water in New York and the Northeast, lies a story of stark contrasts with Lake Champlain, which lies just a few short miles to the north and east.
Any comparison of the two lakes has to start by admitting significant differences in the geology: At 30-plus miles long, Lake George is roughly a fourth as big as Lake Champlain; Lake George is fortunate to be surrounded by mountains with no adjacent farm land; through good (or fortunate) planning, there are miles of Lake George’s shoreline conserved by land conservation groups; and the bottom of Lake George is remarkably sandy and rocky, rather than the mucky sediment that characterizes Lake Champlain caused by decades of erosion and farm run-off.
But it is also true that surrounding communities and the lake association on Lake George got together several years ago to implement what many doubted could be done: a boat inspection program in which boats are inspected at each public boat landing for invasive weeds and species. By most accounts it has been a resounding success. The lake association is also actively managing a host of erosion and drainage issues to help maintain what the communities all recognize as the lake’s most cherished commodity: pristine water so clean you can see the bottom 30-40 feet down, and so clean many lakeshore residents take their drinking water from the lake with simple in-house filtration systems.
In short, residents and the communities around Lake George have long adopted an attitude that values the lake’s clean water. They take pride in what they have and accept personal responsibility to help keep it clean.
We’re not there in Vermont.
While the water quality has declined in many of our lakes and streams, we make excuses for the causes and have been slow to enact measures to stop the degradation, let alone initiate measures to improve its quality.
Admittedly, Lake Champlain has a much more difficult set of circumstances to manage compared to Lake George. We have a 120-mile eastern shoreline that is also the border of the Champlain Valley — the state’s most fertile farmland and home to many of our largest dairy farms. We have several major rivers draining into Lake Champlain and carrying phosphorous run-off and soil erosion from deep within Vermont’s heartland. We have the state’s largest population centers of Burlington and Chittenden County smack in the middle of the shoreline, dumping urban runoff from that immense maze of asphalt  and commercial enterprise.
But it’s not just Lake Champlain and it’s not just about farm and urban run-off that’s at the heart of Vermont’s problem. At base, it’s the attitude in Vermont  (and all communities around Lake Champlain) that must first change.
We need to care enough as individuals and as communities to commit adequate resources, if we are going to make the changes needed to improve water quality. We need to set higher expectations of what the water quality in our lakes and streams could be, and we need to take the personal responsibility to start making improvements.
We can, for example, establish boat inspection stations at each lake that allows larger motorized craft and implement procedures that help prevent the spread of invasive species. We can educate lakeshore residents about the impact of using fertilizers on lawns and the need to keep native growth along the shoreline or erect retaining walls to stop erosion if that habitat was previously removed. We can and we must build community wastewater treatment plants that anticipate rain storms and have the capacity to handle the overflow, rather than dumping the overflow into our streams and into Lake Champlain as a state-sanctioned pass to pollute.
Farmers, too, must work to adopt newer systems that mitigate manure runoff, which is a more viable option today in the wake of new processes that use appropriately scaled bio-digesters and look to limit, or end, the spreading of liquid manure. Farm practices that implement the best crops to plant nearest our waterways (hay, not corn or grains) should also be adopted.
There is much to be done.
What’s promising about the Lakeshore Protection Act is not only is it a step in the right direction, it is also teaching landowners—and communities—what must be done to restore our water quality to higher standards. Not every body of water will have the clarity of Lake George, but we can and should aspire to improve the water quality—not just slowing down its continuing demise. That requires a change in attitude, and it can’t happen soon enough.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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