Water Quality Progress Slow in Lake Champlain

By Adrianne Appel

Aug. 27 — It would take 10 to 20 years for the very poor quality of Lake Champlain water to improve under the phosphorus limits proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency's project manager for the lake told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 26.

“Progress will be slow to see in the lake,” Stephen Perkins said.

The EPA took the unusual step of proposing the phosphorus limits, called total maximum daily loads or TMDLs, for 12 segments of the polluted lake on Aug. 14.

Lake Champlain is the sixth-largest water body in the U.S. and years of high phosphorus levels have resulted in thick, toxic algae blooms in some of its bays. About 922 metric tons of phosphorus per year drained into Lake Champlain between 2001 and 2010, including lesser amounts contributed by New York and Quebec, according to the EPA's TMDL plan for Lake Champlain.

The EPA's models show that in order for the TMDLs to be met, phosphorus entering the lake and its tributaries must be reduced overall by 34 percent, Perkins said prior to a public meeting in St. Albans, Vt., about the proposed TMDLs. Vermont farms would need to reduce their contribution of phosphorus to the lake by 20 percent to 82 percent, according to the plan.

EPA Sued

States generally propose their own TMDLs for waterways and Vermont had done so in 2002. But on Oct. 28, 2008, with routine lake monitoring showing still rising phosphorus levels, the Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization, sued the EPA in federal court, claiming it had erred in approving the state's TMDLs.

The EPA agreed, and in 2010 it withdrew its approval of the state's plan and began the process of determining new TMDLs, Perkins said.

“In hindsight, we decided the state plan was not good enough. In creating these TMDLs, the state and EPA worked closely together,’’ he said.

The state has created an implementation plan to achieve the TMDLs, with some of the plan codified in the Vermont Clean Water Act (Act 64), signed into law June 16.

Once the EPA finalizes its proposed TMDLs in September, Vermont will submit its water quality plan to the EPA for approval. The plan requires the state to track its progress and report in 2.5 years whether it is likely to achieve the necessary phosphorus reductions, something called an accountability framework, Perkins said. The Chesapeake Bay is the only other TMDL program that also relies on an accountability framework, Perkins said.

Lake Champlain ‘Crisis.'

“I know we have a crisis in Lake Champlain. I'm here to tell you that there is commitment from the very top to get this right,” Deborah Markowitz, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, said during the public TMDL meeting. The TMDLs point to agriculture as a major contributor of the lake's phosphorus.

Vermont is an environmentally strong state, but it had a blind spot when it came to the impact of agriculture on the lake, Markowitz told Bloomberg BNA after the meeting.

‘Hands-Off Attitude.'

“There was a hands-off attitude toward agriculture. We're a dairy state,” Markowitz said.

Climate change also has contributed to the phosphorus loading in the lake. Climate change has brought extremely heavy rainfalls to Vermont, which has hastened erosion, she said. The loosened soil releases trapped phosphorus and it washes into streams and into Lake Champlain, she said.

Chuck Ross, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, said the department has been understaffed for years and could not adequately inspect medium and large farms and help them comply with the state's clean water rules. Small farms have been exempted from the rules but will have to comply under the state's proposed implementation plan, he said. A majority of farms in Vermont are small farms, he said.

Vermont, the government of Quebec and New York signed memorandum of understanding on April 27 concerning the stewardship of Lake Champlain. However, New York is still operating under 2002 TMDLs, Perkins said.

“It has not met its goals. It still has plenty of work to do,’’ Perkins said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Adrianne Appel in Boston at aappel@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

More information about the EPA's new phosphorous TMDLs for the Vermont sections of Lake Champlain is available at http://www.epa.gov/region1/eco/tmdl/lakechamplain.html.