VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
VPR News
Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

State Charts Aggressive Course To Cut Phosphorus In Lake Champlain

State and federal environmental agencies began a series of public meetings this week about a new plan to curb excessive pollution from Vermont into Lake Champlain.

According to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Vermont needs to cut the amount of phosphorus it allows into Lake Champlain by 36 percent.


The meetings mark the beginning of the final phase of a years-long process to develop a plan to clean up the lake.

“What this process is really about at the end of the day is an accountability moment,” said Anthony Iarrapino, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “You only undergo this process under the Clean Water Act when everything else has failed.”

The problems with Vermont’s water pollution policy date back more than a decade when the EPA approved a plan – called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) – to limit phosphorus pollution from various sources into Lake Champlain. Under the Clean Water Act, states are allowed to administer the act independently, but their plans for enforcement and permits must be approved by the EPA.

The EPA’s approval of a 2002 state plan, according to CLF’s lawsuit, amounted to a “failure to fulfill the requirements of the Clean Water Act.” Iarrapino said the plan also failed to address climate change issues.

The EPA settled that suit, and in 2011 reversed its approval of the state’s 2002 plan for water pollution.

This week’s meetings are part of the process of redrafting the state’s policy direction on pollutants flowing into Lake Champlain. With the beginning of the meetings, the state released a draft of its “Proposal for a Clean Lake Champlain.”

The plan has a lofty goal: a 36 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus into Lake Champlain. EPA scientists But EPA scientists say that reduction would bring levels down to what the lake is able to sustain without significant damage to its ecosystems.

“What makes it pollution is the fact that it’s excessive, that there’s too much of it,” said David Mears, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “Naturally, phosphorus is not found in high levels in Vermont’s waters, and so you just add a little bit and it makes the plants go crazy.”

Part of the craziness that phosphorus causes in Lake Champlain is cyanobacteria, better known as blue-green algae. The algae produce a potent toxin that environmentalists say is a threat to public health as well as Vermont’s tourism industry.

To bring the level of phosphorus in the lake down to naturally sustainable levels, Vermont’s output needs to fall from 533 metric tons per year to 343 metric tons per year.

"You only undergo this process under the Clean Water Act when everything else has failed." - Anthony Iarrapino, Conservation Law Foundation

  Stephen Perkins, the director of the EPA’s regional office of ecosystem protection, said at a meeting this week in St. Albans that that the needed reductions will not be easy in most parts of the lake.

“The amount of phosphorus that needs to be removed, the percent reduction, is very significant in almost every lake segment,” he said.

Those reductions can broadly come in two forms: cuts from “point sources” of pollution, and reductions in non-point-source pollution.

Point source, says the state conservation department's David Mears, means “the discharges that come out of discernable, discrete conveyance, like a pipe.” For the most part, he says, that means sewage treatment plants.

Non-point-source pollution encompasses everything else, including farming, road runoff and stream bed erosion.

“The challenge with those,” Mears says, “is that they’re not coming out of a pipe, and it’s not as simple as putting a new sewage treatment plant technology or some new black box, some tricky neat thing or gadget at the end of a pipe to treat it, because it involves all this activity across the landscape.”

The natural target for water cleanup efforts, then, is point-source pollution. The problem with that, Mears says, is that most of that cleanup is already being done.

“Depending on which watershed, [point source pollution] may be as low as 2 percent of the overall load of phosphorus coming from sewage treatment plants,” he said.

Indeed, in the state that needs to cut 36 percent of phosphorus output, only 3.1 percent of phosphorus flowing into Lake Champlain is from wastewater treatment facilities, according to EPA statistics.

But no one source of pollution alone causes all the problems in Lake Champlain. Even the largest portion of the state’s phosphorus output, crop land, is only contributing 35.2 percent of the total load. In other words, if phosphorus from crop land completely stopped, the state would still fall just short of its goal.

“We all have a role to play,” said state Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross at this week’s meeting. “And I think when you hear the conversation today, you’ll realize that there are many of us who are involved. In fact, if you look at the [Lake Champlain] basin, and you look at who touches the basin and how we touch the basin, we’re all involved.”

The tone of Monday’s meeting in St. Albans was different than the 2002 TMDL process, as Iarrapino described it.

“Whenever you talked about one source of pollution, if it was farms and the pollution from the agricultural sector, they would say ‘don’t talk to us, talk to the developers,’” and the developers would point to wastewater plants, and blame shifted down the line, he said.

At Monday’s meeting, no one of the scores of attendees cast blame. During the question and answer session of the meeting, members of the community asked how they might be able to be part of the clean up solution.

There’s been a shift in the state government since the failed TMDL was planned. Gov. Peter Shumlin’s focus on environmental issues has  made Iarrapino optimistic about the state’s efforts. He said he was “heartened” by the state’s proposed plan to reduce water pollution, but “the devil is very much going to be in the details.”

For Mears, at the helm of the state’s efforts to clean up the state’s largest water body, only one question remains.

“The choice for all of us,” he says, “isn’t whether we take action, it’s, ‘What are the actions that we’re willing to take?’”