Updated Lake Champlain cleanup plan focuses on climate change, environmental justice

A sign wants swimmers to stay out of the water Monday at Burlington’s Blanchard Beach on Lake Champlain in July 2021. Photo by Clare Cuddy

GRAND ISLE — The Lake Champlain Basin Program on Friday released an update to its five-year lake management plan, which officials said puts new emphasis on climate change and environmental justice.

The plan, last updated in 2017, is used by the basin program’s Lake Champlain Steering Committee — which coordinates among officials in New York, Vermont and Quebec — to budget for projects to improve the lake and its watershed, and support local environmental engagement.

Dozens of people came out to the basin program’s headquarters, which is a stone’s throw from the lake in Grand Isle, for the announcement, including US Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and state and regional officials.

Eric Howe, director of the Lake Champlain Basin Program, speaks at the unveiling of the program’s updated “Opportunities for Action” management plan in Grand Isle on Friday, June 3. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

Eric Howe, the program’s director, said the new five-year plan, on its own, is not enough to mitigate the impacts of climate change on Lake Champlain — an effort he said will take decades. But, Howe said, “it will continue to head us in the right direction.”

He noted the $40 million slated for the basin program in last year’s trillion-dollar federal infrastructure package, along with other federal appropriations, will give the program the funding it needs to take on new projects over the next five years.

“That’s a luxury that we’ve never actually enjoyed before,” Howe said.

At Friday’s event, Leahy, who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said he wants to secure even more funding for the program ahead of his retirement in January.

The Lake Champlain basin measures about 8,235 square miles across Vermont, New York and Canada. It’s almost 20 times larger than the surface area of ​​the lake itself.

The updated plan centers on four goals for the region: “clean water,” “healthy ecosystems,” “thriving committees” and an “informed and involved public.”

Among other clean water initiatives, the plan calls for renewed support of research that will improve scientists’ understanding of the impact of climate change on noxious blooms of cyanobacteria, better known as blue-green algae.

According to the Lake Champlain Basin Program’s 2021 “state of the lake” report, many parts of the lake have concentrations of phosphorus — a nutrient that, in overabundance, can harm lakes by producing algae — that are often near or below the state’s targeted limits . But concentrations in the lake’s shallow areas, such as Missisquoi Bay and St. Albans Bay, often remain above those limits.

Blue-green algae blooms primarily plague Vermont’s waterways in the summer. But officials say due to climate change, warm water temperatures that are advantageous to cyanobacteria are increasingly likely to remain into the fall.

Funding should support projects that will reduce nutrients entering the lake from “all land use sectors,” the plan says, including agriculture, streambanks and forests.

The Lake Champlain basin measures about 8,235 square miles across Vermont, New York and Canada. It’s almost 20 times larger than the surface area of ​​the lake itself. Image via Lake Champlain Basin Program

The plan also focuses on limiting the spread of aquatic invasive species in Lake Champlain, which, Howe said, “are on the forefront of our mind.” He pointed to the round goby, a fish that has traveled from the Great Lakes to New York by way of a manmade canal system.

Vermont environmentalists and politicians have urged New York officials to close a lock in the Champlain Canal to prevent the round goby from entering Lake Champlain.

The 2022 plan also calls for funding to protect native plants and animals in the lake basin, including improvements to aquatic organism passage in rivers and streams.

And to better engage the people who live in the basin, the plan urges staff and officials to create materials and services in multiple languages, bolstering access to environmental work for communities in which English is not a first language.

Howe also said the program is developing new grant programs that would prioritize project proposals coming from communities with environmental justice concerns.

He added that the basin program’s steering committee this year plans to gather updated data on the economic impact Lake Champlain has on the region, which it then can use to demonstrate the value of investing in clean water initiatives. Currently, he said the committee relies on economic impact data that is almost three decades old.

“We know that environmental protection drives economic development,” said David Cash, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator for the region, at the event Friday. “And don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”

Howe also highlighted a number of projects the basin program has supported since it implemented the 2017 plan.

Across the basin, 50 acres of wetlands were restored or conserved, he said, and more than 130 acres of riparian — the area along the banks of a waterway — and shoreland habit were planted or managed.

He said basin program funding also contributed to projects, such as dam removals, that reconnected 30 miles of stream networks for fish passages.

A number of speakers Friday thanked Leahy for advocating for the basin program’s lake cleanup efforts, as well as other clean water projects, in Congress.

Leahy told the crowd that he was asked this week if, after serving for almost 50 years in the Senate, he was disappointed that there was still work to do to mitigate challenges facing Lake Champlain.

“No,” Leahy said. “You can never call it finished. It’s our ongoing job, and I’m optimistic for the future.”

The Grand Isle ferry arrives in Charlotte after crossing Lake Champlain from Essex, New York in December 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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