Scientists Say Lake Pollution Reduction Will Take Decades

02/16/12 7:34AM By John Dillon
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(Host) Scientists say they're seeing small signs of progress in cleaning up Lake Champlain.

That's the good news. The bad news is that it will likely take decades to meet pollution reduction targets.

And as VPR's John Dillon reports, there probably won't be a big infusion of federal dollars to help Vermont achieve those goals.

(Dillon) A year ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency told Vermont that its main clean up plan for Lake Champlain wasn't doing the job.

The feds are now working with the state to draft a new plan to control phosphorus. That's the nutrient pollution that flows in from sewage plants, farm fields, city streets and suburban lawns. In the big lake, phosphorus acts like fertilizer and feeds the toxic algae blooms that plague Champlain in the summer.

This week, four legislative committees heard that earlier pollution control measures are showing some signs of success. University of Vermont scientist Mary Watzin pointed to a table that showed the intensity of the toxic algae blooms in Missisquoi Bay. She noted that the levels rose prior to 2007.

(Watzin) "And then in 2008,'09 and ‘10, notice that the numbers are lower - 88, 29 and 10. To me that's an indication that we are beginning to see some progress in the lake."

(Dillon) That positive trend reversed this year as record floods washed tons of phosphorus into the lake. Missisquoi Bay was covered in blue green  algae last summer.

Watzin added that even if all the farms and development were removed from the watershed, it would take decades to clean up the water.

(Watzin) "There is a resident load of phosphorus in the watershed that's going to continue to move down to the bay and there is a storehouse of phosphorus in the sediments in Missisquoi Bay that is also going to continue to contribute to blooms."

(Dillon) The state and federal governments have spent about $140 million since 1994 to clean the lake and other waters around the state.

A top EPA official told lawmakers that the federal government won't have much extra money to spend.

The tight budgets means the state needs a better understanding of what programs are most cost-effective. David Mears is state environmental conservation commissioner.

(Mears) "We've made significant progress in the area of reducing phosphorus from waste water treatment plants. We have seen some significant improvements in agriculture run-off and changes. It hasn't been enough as we've wanted. And we haven't, frankly, done a good enough job of quantifying what has worked and what hasn't."

(Dillon) The EPA rejected Vermont's phosphorus plan because of a lawsuit brought by the Conservation Law Foundation. And CLF Vermont director Chris Kilian says the environmental group will keep up the pressure. He says the earlier plan was flawed by overly optimistic assumptions about reducing phosphorus from agriculture.

(Kilian) "And it's still the case that the only thing that we really know is that if we invest money in pollution controls at wastewater treatment plants we get phosphorus reduction. The rest of it still hocus-pocus. And so we want a real gut check. We want an honest and sober appraisal of what we can reasonably in terms of pollution reduction expect from farms, from stormwater sources."

(Dillon) Kilian says CLF is prepared to go back to court, if necessary, to make sure pollution control efforts are working.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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