Lake Champlain cyanobacteria

Cyanobacteria blooms at Dog Beach in Burlington. 

Vermont farmers are responsible for the largest reduction of phosphorus entering Lake Champlain in the past five years.

This is a victory in the fight to limit cyanobacteria blooms and make the lake safer, according to the Vermont Agricultural Water Quality Partnership.

“We continue to be amazed at the commitment and willingness of Vermont farms to learn and use new field management techniques and invest in farm infrastructure improvements to reduce water quality impacts from their operations,” said Alli Lewis, VAWQP Coordinator. “Many conservation projects provide benefits for the farms too, such as improving soil health and reducing soil loss. We have come a long way, but there is still work to do.”

In an interview with the Messenger, Lewis said phosphorus levels in lakes directly contribute to blooms of cyanobacteria. This summer, blooms closed St. Albans Bay Beach, Blanchard Beach, Leddy Beach, Texaco Beach and North Beach on Lake Champlain.

Ingesting cyanobacteria may cause liver damage, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea in humans, and can also cause skin irritations if contact is made, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

The release from the VAWQP issued on Tuesday said farmers planted around 27,000 acres of cover crops, over 14,000 acres of conservation tillage. Thirty-five acres of forested buffers were also built in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lewis said cover crops and buffers strengthen the land around waterways, which in turn prevents manure, fertilizers and their phosphorus from flowing into the water.

Estimated total phosphorus reduction has almost tripled since 2016 with over 97% of reductions related to agricultural projects, decreasing phosphorus inputs by nearly 16 metric tons, the release stated.

Despite valiant efforts from local farmers to optimize their farming practices, the lake is still running up against climate change, which is warming the water and providing an ideal habitat for cyanobacteria blooms.

“Lake Champlain is freezing over less often than in the past,” according to Eric Howe, Director of the Lake Champlain Basin Programs. “Climate change can affect everything from the frequency of cyanobacteria blooms to the quality of fish habitat.”

VAWQP stated Lake Champlain currently freezes about once every four years, but because of increasing temperatures, modeling suggests by 2050 the lake may freeze once every ten years.

“Vermont’s farmers are dedicated to feeding us in a sustainable way that respects the environment and our communities,” Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said in a statement. “Water quality is top of mind for them and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. We applaud their efforts to reduce phosphorus and stand ready to assist farmers with that effort for our future generations.”

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