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[The Lakes][Lake Champlain][Human Health][Ecosystem Health][The Basin's Economy]

 

The Lakes

All water in Vermont eventually flows into five drainage basins. Three of these basins flow into rivers; the other two empty into Lakes Champlain and Memphremagog. Together, these two lakes drain more than half the land area of Vermont, their watersheds reaching from Island Pond in the Northeast Kingdom to the headwaters of the Mettawee River in Bennington County.

The outlets for these two lakes, the Richelieu River and the St. Francis River, join the flow of the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence River. Lakes Champlain and Memphremagog are slow points in this seaward movement of water, and the lakes suffer special problems because of this "bathtub" effect that rivers don't experience. Some pollutants, such as phosphorus, take a long time to flush out. Others, such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), remain in the lakes' sediments for decades.

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Lakes Champlain and Memphremagog accumulate many small and large discharges of pollutants, toxic materials, and sediments that result from human activities throughout the lakes' combined 5,103-square-mile watersheds. Pollutants can cause special problems in lakes, such as the excess build-up of nutrients known as eutrophication.

We have dedicated the first few pages of this report to new information about Lakes Champlain and Memphremagog. Recently drafted management plans for each lake provide a blueprint for action. Vermonters developed these plans in cooperation with the people and governments of New York and Quebec, with whom we share these waters. We are fortunate in Vermont to have northern lakes and rivers that are relatively clean and healthy. The future condition of our two largest lakes and their tributaries will be determined by the individual choices made by thousands of people and businesses in the watersheds and by continued strong interstate and international partnerships.

 

Lake Champlain

For tens of thousands of Vermonters, Lake Champlain is the principal water resource in their lives. On warm summer days, hundreds of boats crisscross the 120-mile-long lake. Winter brings the shanties and the tradition of weekends devoted to ice fishing. Throughout the year, we admire the Adirondacks silhouetted against magenta sunsets.

Despite its beauty and the value of its resources, Lake Champlain's water quality has suffered as settlement and industrialization increased within its basin. Sometimes the sources of pollution sit right on the shoreline; other times, they're miles away in the watershed. In response to the lake's deterioration, hundreds of people, organizations, and businesses, and six state and five federal agencies cooperated for five years to develop Opportunities for Action: An Evolving Plan for the Future of the Lake Champlain Basin1, a report released in October, 1996. Their work was done under the auspices of the Lake Champlain Basin Program, in which the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is a partner. The program devoted $18 million to define priorities, research critical questions, demonstrate successful clean-up actions, and disseminate this information widely.

[1 For a copy of Opportunities for Action and various technical reports about Lake Champlain, call the Lake Champlain Basin Program at 1-800-468-LCBP.]

 

Human Health

Lake Champlain is relatively clean compared to more industrialized water bodies, such as the Great Lakes. However, toxic substances and pathogens (disease-causing agents such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites) are found in Lake Champlain and can pose a threat to human health. People are exposed to these threats in drinking water coming from the lake, by swimming in the lake, and by eating certain fish in large quantities.

The Lake Champlain Basin Program has funded several research projects to detect the presence of toxic materials in the waters and sediments of Lake Champlain. Of 29 sites tested lakewide, Outer Malletts Bay and Inner Burlington Harbor on the Vermont side have elevated levels of some contaminants in their sediments; these two sites have been targeted for further evaluation of environmental risk. The Pine Street Barge Canal in Burlington, a known contamination site, is one of three Superfund sites in New England targeted by EPA's Community Empowerment Initiative. Through this initiative, individuals from the community are designing a clean-up plan that ensures participation for public and private interests.

Mercury and PCBs are found in sediments and aquatic organisms throughout the lake; bottom-feeding organisms ingest or absorb these contaminants which then move through the food chain to larger animals. The Vermont Health Department advises that we should limit our consumption of large lake trout and walleye from Lake Champlain due to high levels of mercury and PCBs (Figure 1). The New York Department of Health has also issued a consumption advisory for American eel, brown bullhead, and yellow perch in Cumberland Bay.

Some toxic materials are waterborne, while some are airborne and enter the lake by atmospheric deposition. Their sources include industries and small businesses; but they also enter the environment through common household products such as paint, gasoline, tires, and cleaners. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation provides assistance and information to businesses and individuals about ways to prevent this sort of pollution by suggesting non-toxic substitutes.2 The Department stresses pollution prevention rather than pollution management to reduce toxic materials in Lake Champlain.

Approximately 188,000 people, or 32 percent of Vermonters and New Yorkers living in the Lake Champlain Basin, depend on the lake for their drinking water. Almost all of these people (98 percent) obtain their water from public water supplies regulated by state natural resource agencies. By drinking untreated lake water, people can become infected with pathogens such as giardia and cryptosporidium, which can cause gastrointestinal sickness. Pathogens are present in human and animal feces and enter the lake though combined sewer overflows - which allow heavy rains to overload sewage treatment plants - and run-off containing septage, sludge, and manure.

Public drinking water facilities filter and chlorinate water to eliminate these pathogens. These organisms pose the greatest threat to the users of private water systems, who may drink untreated water, and to swimmers who may accidentally swallow water. There are 21 public beaches on the Vermont shoreline (Figure 2) enjoyed by thousands of people each year. Municipal beaches are sometimes closed due to high pathogen counts in the waters. The number of beach closings should soon decline because Vermont has an ongoing program to separate stormwater lines from sewer lines, eliminating the flow of raw sewage into the lake during major storms. In 1990, there were 57 combined sewer overflow systems in 14 Vermont communities along Lake Champlain. As of the fall of 1996, 32 of these discharges had been eliminated, 18 were in the process of getting separated, and the state intends to eliminate the remaining discharges.

[2 For more information about non-toxic materials, please call the Agency's Pollution Prevention Hotline, 1-800-974-9559.]

 

Ecosystem Health

The Lake Champlain Basin is an area of great natural diversity supporting many kinds of plants, animals, and natural communities. Together, this physical environment and the living organisms comprise a lake ecosystem with complex interrelationships, many of which are poorly understood. The continuing health of the Lake Champlain ecosystem will have a large impact on the region's economy and Vermonters' use and enjoyment of the lake's natural resources.

The key to maintaining a healthy Lake Champlain ecosystem is to protect the habitats of its diverse fish, wildlife, and plants. Threats come from pollution, excess sediment, the invasion of non-native nuisance species, and direct habitat destruction by people.

One such threat is phosphorus, which the Lake Champlain management plan identifies as a significant pollutant. Phosphorus is a nutrient that can limit plant growth. Too much phosphorus stimulates the growth of algae, which can turn water green and murky, cause foul odors, impair drinking water supplies, and deplete oxygen as the algae decay. Low oxygen levels can cause fish kills and deplete insect and microscopic organism populations that provide the all-important base of the lake's food chain.

Vermonters have invested more than $16 million in "point source" (coming out of a pipe) phosphorus controls since 1979. Other sources of phosphorus are more scattered, primarily run-off from farms and urban areas. The Lake Champlain Basin Program has funded $1.1 million in research and demonstration projects to identify the most effective and least costly ways to reduce nonpoint source phosphorus pollution. The watersheds of Missisquoi Bay, Otter Creek, and the South Lake have been targeted as top priorities for phosphorus reduction. Since 1995, the Vermont Legislature has appropriated $700,000 in cost-share funds for farmers to implement voluntary Best Management Practices providing additional water quality protection; about two-thirds of this money has been directed to the Lake Champlain Basin.

Wetlands are some of the most threatened natural communities in the Lake Champlain Basin. Roughly 35 percent of Vermont's wetlands have been lost since European settlement. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that from 1990 to 1993, between 200 and 400 wetland acres were lost each year. These losses were concentrated in the Lake Champlain Basin, and especially in rapid growth areas such as Chittenden County. This loss of wetlands was incremental, with hundreds of projects involving one acre or less of wetland alteration.

Wetlands provide critical habitat for many kinds of fish, for mammals such as otters and mink, and for many species of reptiles and amphibians. Lake Champlain wetlands provide important stopovers for migrating birds along the Atlantic Flyway. Wetlands also stabilize shorelines and prevent erosion, control flooding, improve water quality by filtering sediments and pollutants, and provide educational opportunities for school children.

In 1991, the Lake Champlain Basin Program sponsored a project to identify the most important wetlands for protection along the Lake Champlain shoreline. This multi-year effort resulted in a plan to permanently protect nearly 9,000 acres of wetlands in the Champlain Valley. The initial investment of $29,000 has leveraged more than $600,000 in federal funds, resulting in the protection of about 1,500 acres in Vermont and New York.

Non-native nuisance species seriously threaten the lake's ecological balance as well as our economic and recreational uses of the lake. Zebra mussels, first detected by a citizen monitoring effort in 1993, have already spread widely (Figure 2). Once settled on a hard surface such as water intake pipes, boat hulls, or the shells of native mussels, these thumbnail-sized mussels reproduce prolifically, reaching densities of more than 700,000 per square meter. Vermont communities have already spent $2 million to install devices designed to prevent mussels from entering drinking water pipes at large public facilities.

Studies are underway to document the impact of zebra mussels on native mussels, which appear to be suffering as zebra mussel populations expand. It is now common to see dead and dying native mussels encrusted with up to 300 zebra mussels. Researchers are developing strategies to protect and preserve native mussel species from potential extinction. In an effort to expand public awareness of this problem, a full-time zebra mussel education coordinator has been hired and the Agency has expanded its citizen monitoring program.

 

The Basin's Economy

A clean, healthy Lake Champlain is vitally important to the region's economic future. In 1990, total tourism-related expenditures in the basin were estimated at nearly $2.2 billion, with about

70 percent of this total ($1.5 billion) coming from activities in Vermont. In comparison, the two-state basin produced roughly $2.8 billion in manufacturing, $4.5 billion in total retail sales, and $1.8 billion in the service industry during 1991. Protection and enhancement of the lake and its surrounding natural and cultural resources are critical for the local economy as Lake Champlain becomes an increasingly popular recreational resource. Several initiatives are underway to capitalize on the lake's popularity.

There are 16 state parks and 51 state boat launch sites on or near the Vermont shoreline of Lake Champlain, and another 12 municipal beaches. The Lake Champlain management plan calls for more public access along the lake, reflecting a widespread consensus of public opinion. One new access site opened in 1996, Alburg Dunes State Park. This 648-acre park contains nearly a mile of beach, the largest deer wintering yard in Grand Isle County, and extensive wetlands. The park is also home to globally endangered Champlain beachgrass and the rare beachpea, remnants from 10,000 years ago when seawater filled the Lake Champlain Basin. With plenty of input from area residents, the Agency is writing a comprehensive management plan for Alburg Dunes State Park.

Currently under development, the Lake Champlain Paddlers' Trail will extend the length of Lake Champlain, linking access sites, overnight camping opportunities, and sites of interest along the shorelines of Vermont and New York. Leading the development of the trail is a partnership of organizations and agencies, including the Lake Champlain Committee, the Champlain Kayak Club, the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Also under development, Lake Champlain Bikeways will be a network of interconnected, international bicycle routes that use existing roads along Lake Champlain in Vermont and New York and the Richelieu River in Quebec. Cyclists who ride in the Champlain region know it has all the ingredients for a bicycle touring destination: a vast network of quiet back roads, picturesque villages, impressive historic sites and museums, lovely shoreline parks, convenient connections to rail lines and ferry crossings, and an ample supply of accommodations and services. A 350-mile principal route has already been identified, and another 45 potential tours, ranging from 6 to 134 miles, will eventually link with the network. The potential economic benefits are great. In 1991, an estimated 32,500 visiting bicycle tourists spent $13.1 million, at a rate of $115 per person per day in Vermont, providing the state with more than $620,000 in tax revenue. Through the Lake Champlain Bikeways program, individuals affiliated with tourism, recreation, and historic preservation have recognized a unique opportunity to promote the region's tremendous base of bicycling resources and amenities to become known as one of the finest cycling destinations in North America.

 

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