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New Observatory, Research Buoys Aim For Year-Round Monitoring of Lake Memphremagog

Wikimedia Commons
A view of Lake Memphremagog from Owl's Head ski hill near Mansonville, in Quebec's Eastern Townships. The University of Sherbrooke is launching an observatory for year-round monitoring of the lake's health and water quality.

Many lakes in Vermont are dealing with water quality threats, and Lake Memphremagog is no exception. But the lake crosses the international border into Canada — some 70% of the lake is actually in Quebec — where more than 175,000 locals rely on the lake for drinking water. Now, years of concern about Memphremagog's health has led the University of Sherbrooke to launch a permanent observatory to monitor the lake’s health and water quality.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Céline Guéguen, a chemistry professor at L’Université de Sherbrooke who will be in charge of the observatory. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: When Vermont news outlets report on Lake Memphremagog, there's an understandable focus on the Vermont side of the lake. But when your university announced this observatory, everybody, from the mayors of Magog and Sherbrooke to members of parliament, were quoted about the need for it.

For [those] who may not be familiar, tell us what Lake Memphremagog means to your region of Quebec, and what are the concerns that are top of mind for Quebecers when they think about the challenges facing the lake?

Céline Guéguen: The lake, for us in Quebec, it's very important, because it's also our source of drinking water. It's also a very attractive tourist destination for the Eastern Township region. So, it's very, very important for the economy of the region as well. That's why we want to have that water quality monitoring all the time now.

"It is our drinking water source, so we have to protect it."
Céline Guéguen, L’Université de Sherbrooke

And some of those concerns you were just talking about include things like potentially cancer-causing PFAS chemicals, is that right? Have those been detected in Lake Memphremagog?

That's right. Those have been detected close to the intake of the water drinking plant for Sherbrooke water. But we have very little data to make a case for it. So that's why we launched the observatory, to have a better sense of the health of the lake.

University of Sherbrooke, Courtesy
Announcing the University of Sherbrooke Lake Memphremagog observatory in late July, from left: Jean-Pierre Perreault, UdeS vice-rector for research and graduate studies; Lyne Bessette, Brome-Missisquoi member of parliament; Magog Mayor Vicki-May Hamm; UdeS chemistry professor Céline Guéguen; and Sherbrooke Mayor Steve Lussier.

Leachate from the Coventry landfill has been identified as a concern by some environmentalists in Vermont. Are there concerns, as well, on the Quebec side?

Right now, we want to have a sense of the water quality of the lake before the [landfill] expansion is going on in Coventry. And with that, we will see if the situation is different after the expansion is completed.

There is a three-step plan for this, what can you tell us about this new observatory?

The way we’ve designed the observatory is to include everybody, all the actors that have an interest in the lake, to meet everybody that is interested in protecting the lake.

So that means citizens associations, watershed associations, the federal and provincial governments on the Quebec side. We have also reached out to people in Vermont. So that's the first step.

University of Sherbrooke, courtesy
Researchers at the University of Sherbrooke plan to deploy buoys to continuously sample and analyze water quality in Lake Memphremagog, including ice samples during the winter.

The second step is to deploy buoys in the lake, to monitor throughout the year water quality. We'll deploy the first buoy in [August].

The third step would be to have a very comprehensive way of monitoring the lake throughout the year, with maybe a platform that can move around the lake and deploy some infrastructure in regions of the lake that require some more attention.

Vermont environmental officials recently declined to give the [rare “lake in crisis” designation]. It's a label with really strict parameters in Vermont law. But I'm wondering, with your expertise, do you think that Lake Memphremagog is a “lake in crisis”? Should it have been designated as such?

It's hard for me to say that, because we don't have much data on the lake. Maybe with the observatory, that would help build the case for the officials in Vermont, to protect even more the lake.

But right now, it's hard to say for sure. But it's our drinking water source, so we have to protect it.

One thing that's potentially exciting is the inclusion of citizen scientists into this project. We're talking about regular folks who care about the lake, whether you're from Vermont or Quebec. What can you tell us about how people can get involved?

That's right. We want to have people involved in water chemistry monitoring. We cannot be everywhere on the lake. So, we will equip citizens with very simple instruments that have been used in the past in the territories in northern Canada before. It worked beautifully.

So the idea of the citizen science project is that we expand our monitoring to areas that we may not have access to, and also, they can do that when we are not there.

"The idea of the citizen science project is that we expand our monitoring to areas that we may not have access to, and also, they can do that when we are not there."
Céline Guéguen, L’Université de Sherbrooke

Professor Guéguen, when do you expect — or hope — to see some results from the initial round of the observatory, the buoys, the citizen scientists, etc., that may tell you more about the lake, and the health of it?

Well, we already have a sampling program going on between Quebec and Vermont on PFAS. So, the first results would be available, I imagine, in the fall.

For the buoy data, we'll have also the first set of data available, to everyone, in the fall as well.

We want to go with an open-access approach here. The data that we'll collect will be available to everybody. Our partners, of course, but also to citizens.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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