The state’s top environmental enforcement official said more needs to be done to protect Lake Champlain’s drinking water supplies from toxic algae blooms.
For years, state officials warned recreational users of the lake to stay away from this toxic green scum that floats on the surface of the water during mid- to late-summer months.
David Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, now says the algae toxins could enter drinking water supplies for consumers around Lake Champlain and the state is working to improve its testing protocols.
The water is frequently monitored and tested to prevent toxins from entering the drinking water supply, he said.
But algae toxins can move across the water and within the water column, making it difficult to track in real time. State officials say a wide range of towns and drinking water facilities along the lake need more guidance on to how to deal with algae alerts more quickly.
“We need to do more,” Mears said.
Mears said the department is working on a new response protocol; state officials say the current one expires this winter. The initiative follows recent drinking water bans in Toledo, Ohio, after larger algae blooms were reported to contaminated water supplies.
The algae break down to form cyanobacterial toxins that can cause symptoms ranging from short-term illness and allergic reactions to liver damage, according to the health department. Approximately 200,000 people drink water from Lake Champlain.
Currently the state aims to prevent toxins from entering drinking water supplies through regular tracking and monitoring, Mears said. When an algae bloom is spotted near a drinking water intake pipe, he said the facility is notified.
The health department provides free training and materials to test the raw water supply before it is sent to consumers.
Mears said DEC staff works with the Vermont Department of Health, the University of Vermont, lake advocacy groups and citizen scientists to locate and test algae blooms.
So far no water supplies have been contaminated, he says.
Experts say algae blooms come from agriculture and human phosphorus runoff into waterways. The state plans to cut phosphorus loading into Lake Champlain as part of its plan to restore its water quality.
The Lake Champlain Committee, which advocates for clean water and helps monitor algae blooms, is asking residents to push the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt algae toxin standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Mears said Vermont would have to enforce whatever EPA requires. These new regulations could call on drinking water suppliers to invest in technologies to treat algae toxins, he said.
He said this is an issue that should be taken up nationally because Vermont does not have the staff or resources to implement new regulations on its own.
Ellen Parr Doering is deputy director of the DEC’s Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division. She said DEC has not issued any public notices of a drinking water threats to date. She said algae blooms have not been spotted near drinking water intake pipes.
But a plant operator in the northern section of the lake said algae blooms frequently hover above their intake pipe.
Mark Simon co-owns Simon Operation Services Inc., which oversees water and wastewater facilities. The company works with 95 drinking water plants, including the two in North Hero and Grand Isle.
Simon said almost every year there is a bloom above the Grand Isle intake pipe.
He said the operator switches from its shallow intake pipe to a deeper one when an algae bloom is spotted. He said water treatment plants are not set up to treat toxins from blue-green algae.
Simon said when there is an algae bloom near the intake pipe, the operator contacts the health department and it tests the raw drinking water for toxins. To date, he said no toxins have been detected in the water.
“I can’t say what may happen a few years down the road,” Simon said.
That’s why the state should take stronger action now, lake advocates say.
James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, said clean drinking water is a basic human service and the state should not wait to take action until someone is sick.
He said the state needs more timely information, smaller plant operators need more guidance, and some communities need more staff and resources to address the issue. This initiative should require a collaboration between drinking water facilities and regulators, he said.
“This is not going to get better without an employment of financial and intellectual resources,” Ehlers said.
There were one dozen locations in Lake Champlain under high alert for outbreaks of blue-green algae blooms as of Tuesday, according the health department.