It’s that bad

By Emerson Lynn

If the blue-algae blooms in Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi were the constant, smelly, noxious companions of every Vermonter then ridding ourselves of the blue-algae blooms would become our sole focus. They would be seen for what they are, which is a threat to our water quality, to our way of life, and to our economy.

We would do something about it. We would not tolerate complacency. It would be a cause behind which every single Vermonter would unite.

It’s that bad.

The water along the shores of both lakes carries swirls of colors that belong on an artist’s canvas, not in our lakes. The blues, the dark greens and the churned up froth are typically the visual residue of sites associated with industrial pollution. The ability to see down into the water is nil.

And the smell is something that stains the nostrils.

To anyone who lives along the lake these blooms put the value of their homes at risk. They cannot enjoy being outside. Basking on the deck is almost laughable. Getting on the boat at the dock’s end is an exercise almost not worth the effort. They cannot, or should not use the water that comes from the lake to shower or to rinse their dishes or to flush their toilets.

It’s that bad.

If every Vermonter were required to spend the afternoon on an affected shoreline, then every Vermonter would sign whatever petition was put in front of them to deal with it.

But most Vermonters don’t live on the shorelines of Lake Champlain or Lake Carmi, or any other body of water in Vermont similarly affected. They may have heard about the issue. They might have seen pictures of the odd colors. But it’s not part of their lives, and their ability to empathize is limited.

It’s also an issue that occupies a short amount of time. Out of a 52-week year the blooms might be a problem for a month. The remainder of the year we find ourselves concerned with other things. It’s hard to build a cause when the percentage of people affected is small and the time period involved is short.

That’s a poor excuse; akin to pretending being overweight is the new normal, thus acceptable.

How we address such issues needs to change. We need to figure out how to draw the rest of Vermont into the political equation, which means finding ways to show how others are affected, perhaps unwittingly.

But first, we need to understand that this is a problem that has been decades in the making and that we will not rectify it anytime soon. Things are likely to get worse before they get better simply because of the levels of pollution that presently exist. There is no reason to believe the blooms will be a thing of the past, or that the level of weeds will moderate. There is every reason to believe the blooms will intensify and expand. There is every reason to believe the fields of weeds will claim new territory. There is every reason to believe our waters will become less and less the places for people to enjoy.

Accepting that is a tough political message. We’d prefer not to dwell on the negative. Dirty water is not the stuff of a Vermont Life calendar.

But not dwelling on it carries a higher political risk. Tourism is a significant share of the state’s economy. Lose it and we lose vital tax revenue. If shoreline homeowners begin to sell their properties for less than they paid for them, and if values are diminished, then the state’s property tax revenues begin to slide.

There is the intrinsic loss of environmental value associated with Vermont, let alone the basic need to have water that is clean.

Flipping this consciousness to something productive has been a struggle for the reasons mentioned, but primarily because the average Vermonter has yet to be exposed to the issue in a way that has any political life.

The way to change that is to find a way to bring people (and most importantly, our elected representatives) to the water. They need to see it. They need to breath it. They need to smell it.

Or, perhaps we can find ways to bring the water to the people. It would be most instructive to fill a transparent dump-truck-sized container full of the blue-green concoction and take it to the statehouse for all legislators to see and smell. It could be used to water the statehouse lawn.

Are we getting closer to the prospect of a class action suit filed by the citizens against the state for inaction?

What we can’t do is what we’ve always done.

It doesn’t work. Take a trip to Lake Carmi, or to St. Albans Bay, or any other shoreline that is affected. It will move you to act.

It’s that bad.

Emerson Lynn is the co-publisher of The Essex Reporter and The Colchester Sun and the publisher of the St. Albans Messenger.