ST. ALBANS BAY — It’s time to stop pointing fingers, stop talking, and just do something – that’s the message the St. Albans Town Selectboard delivered Monday night.
Yesterday’s meeting opened with the bay’s hottest topic – the water, the algae blooms there, and what is being termed the dire need for immediate action.
However, last night’s meeting, while it stirred up what have been long repeated laments, did not reach any conclusions regarding specific actions to reduce ongoing bay pollution nor the ongoing impact of past practices that contributed to it.
“It seems worse – the worst it’s ever been,” said selectboard chair Bernie Boudreau.
Steve Cushing, the president of the St. Albans Area Watershed Association (SAAWA), agreed with Boudreau, and came to the selectboard for that reason. “I hope that you guys will start thinking seriously about this,” Cushing said. “The time’s run out.”
Cushing began his presentation by telling the selectboard that SAAWA is thinking of getting another weed harvester in order to keep up with the dead weed masses in the bay. “It is dramatic,” he said of the weed harvesting process. “Within hours, if wave action allows, the water clears right up.”
Weed growth is fed by phosphorus entering the bay and is largely seen as an issue unrelated to algal blooms, some of which have turned toxic this summer.
At the moment, Cushing said SAAWA focuses on clearing the first 100 feet of water from shoreline. With $7,500 from St. Albans Town, $2,500 from Georgia and other donations, SAAWA pays $13,000 a year in operating fees to take out 20 loads of wet, dead weeds – each load weighing about 2 tons – each day to be composted at nearby properties. This summer, Cushing said this has been done for 25 days so far.
A new harvester could double the approximately 600 tons of weeds taken out of the bay each year. According to Cushing, a used harvester machine and trailer would cost between $30,000 and $50,000, while a new harvester machine and trailer would run about $150,000.
“We’ve done real well with this used one that cost us $27,500,” said Cushing, indicating another used machine would suffice. He added that he was meeting with St. Albans City Council next week to talk about help with funding.
“I really think we need to take a hard look at this at budget time,” said Boudreau.
Weed harvesting aside, though, Cushing said that a much bigger change was needed to fix the problems in the bay and other water bodies in the state. “Taking advantage of what we’ve always thought of as a blessing,” said Cushing, “it’s kind of turned into a curse.”
Cushing went on, “Seventy percent of the nutrient loading into the bay comes from agricultural runoff. Whether the dollars are available or not, somehow the agricultural practices need to be changed.”
He added, “Every elected official needs to look seriously at mandatory standards.”
Selectboard member Bruce Cheeseman said, “Steve, I couldn’t agree with you more. In order to clean the lake up, we first need to stop polluting it.”
According to the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Lake Champlain, there needs to be a 48 percent reduction in phosphorus loading and additional remedial action in order to have acceptable water quality in the St. Albans Bay.
Joe Montagne, another selectboard member, agreed with Cushing and Cheeseman that something needed to be done about the lake, but he said that pointing fingers at farmers is not the way to do it.
“I’ve heard anywhere from farming polluting 50 percent to 95 percent,” Montagne, said. “Where’s the number?”
According to Vermont Agency of Natural Resources scientists, cropland alone contributes 52 percent of the phosphorous load in the St. Albans Bay.
Montagne added, “I’m not saying farmers don’t contribute.” He talked about his own 20 years of experience with farming and the financial challenges it presents, and then the feeling of being ostracized by environmental groups. “Has anybody reached out to the farmers?” Montagne asked. “I’ve seen a lot of efforts on farms in the last five years. Nobody sees that.”
Montagne added, “I do agree with you, we need to set regulations. [But] there needs to be some funding – it’s impossible otherwise.”
He then pointed out that pollution from elsewhere – camps along the shoreline, municipal stormwater runoff, and the mystery source of tampon applicators showing up in the bay – is also an issue.
“Where’s the investment on [lakeshore] camps?” Montagne said. “It’s no different than farms – it’s as clean as can be until it rains.”
“Everybody has to be involved,” he added. “We haven’t had that yet – it’s just been pointing fingers.”
Montagne said, “My point is, we all have to work together.”
Cushing supported Montagne’s sentiment, and he shared his observations about lakes front properties going up for sale. “I have some neighbors who are trying to sell their home,” he said. His neighbors haven’t been able to sell in two years, and what’s more, Cushing said his neighbors discovered that more 50 other lake front properties were up for sale in St. Albans Bay.
“None of them are really moving,” said Cushing. “The value of lakefront property is going down.” And that, he said, would affect everyone in the town.
Not everyone agreed, however. Resident Dick Day asked why he would have to do anything when he felt none of his activities were affecting the bay. Furthermore, he said, property values are going down not just in the St. Albans Bay, but also everywhere in Vermont. “You’ve got a severe economic problem here,” he said.
Boudreau brought the conversation back to an agreed-upon point – that a solution needs to be found for the bay.
“We’ve been having this conversation for a lot of years,” he said.
Montagne added, “We talk and talk and talk and talk – we’ve got to do something.”
“It’s time to move,” said Cushing.