Advocates for improving the water quality of Lake Carmi want state officials to provide more money for cleanup efforts directed at the troubled Franklin County body of water, following yet another summer marked by pervasive cyanobacteria blooms.
They’re also calling for a feasibility study of implementing an alum treatment — using aluminum sulfate to reduce the amount of phosphorus in the water — in the lake, saying it could be the best next step toward curbing the continuing release of that nutrient.
“Even though there have been significant investments and significant work that’s been done in our watershed, we probably had one of the worst years we've ever had,” Rob Evans, president of the Franklin Watershed Committee, said of 2022.
As it stands, Vermont allocates $50,000 of “lake in crisis” funding annually for cleanup efforts at the lake, although that’s not the only state funding that contributes to water quality projects there. Lake Carmi was designated the state’s first “lake in crisis” in 2018.
In a letter sent last month to state officials including Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, the watershed committee and the Lake Carmi Camper’s Association — of which Evans is vice president — asked the state to triple that “crisis” funding.
Evans said $150,000 a year would ensure the lake’s aeration system, which has seen mixed results since it was installed in 2019, continues to operate. It would also fund additional staff, including a full-time watershed coordinator, who Evans said would be better positioned to manage key projects than the current part-time coordinator.
The letter also calls for state officials to renew an additional $50,000 in state funding for a monitoring platform managed by the University of Vermont Extension, which provides a host of data points on lake conditions in near-real time to a publicly accessible website.
VTDigger reported in May that the state had no plan at the time to continue funding the platform after this year — a concern for advocates such as Evans, who said that decision would only limit people’s understanding of the water quality conditions.
Lake Carmi advocates have pointed to an intense cyanobacteria bloom in July that spanned the entire 1,375-acre body of water as a source of frustration for local property owners. Evans said in an interview in late September that he had not been able to get into the water from the dock on his lakeside property since before the end of June.
The blooms this summer have “of course” had a detrimental effect on tourism around the lake as well, according to Dave Bennion, chair of the selectboard in Franklin, where the lake is located. It is northwest of Enosburgh, just a few miles from the U.S.-Canada border.
“None of us see the conditions this summer as acceptable,” Moore said in an interview. “And I agree with Rob Evans and the Franklin Watershed Committee that we need to take another look at our approach and think about what comes next.”
Moore said she appreciates the advocates’ requests and that her agency is weighing whether to propose funding them in the state’s clean water budget for the 2024 fiscal year, which the Clean Water Board will review in draft form later this month.
That budget will then go before a public hearing and could ultimately be included in the governor’s budget proposal to the Legislature when it convenes next January.
Moore said even if the board does not increase the “lake in crisis” funding, specifically, it may still fund water quality projects at Lake Carmi in other parts of the clean water budget. Moore said she expects that funding for the UVM monitoring platform will likely be included.
But what’s next is still unclear, according to Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin. Brock said he knows that “time is of the essence” when it comes to cleaning up Lake Carmi, but he does not think the state has yet shown what new steps it would take that justify more money.
Moore said she understands that concern.
“I don't know that there is a clear next step at this moment,” she said. “There isn't a playbook for this work, other than we know we ultimately have to turn off the spigot of phosphorus coming into the lake.”
Evans said one improvement he did see over the summer was that the state’s $1 million aeration system, which is designed to pump oxygen into the lake, ran with few or no interruptions for the first time since it was installed four summers ago.
The system had been plagued by malfunctions in its first three summers of operation, and data shows that its starts and stops may have actually made blooms worse.
But cyanobacteria blooms were still a clear issue this summer even with the aeration system running at its best, Evans said, leading him and other advocates to conclude there’s a need for one or more new solutions at the lake, such as an alum treatment.
Moore said data shows that the aeration system has been effective at keeping the water close to the lake bottom oxygen-rich, which is what prevents the release of phosphorus that feeds blooms of noxious cyanobacteria, known more commonly as blue-green algae.
“I think what we're learning, though, is that the aeration system is insufficient to do that shore-to-shore, across the lake,” she said. “Any weakness in oxygenation is resulting in phosphorus being mobilized in those areas.”
Oliver Pierson, manager of the state’s Lakes and Ponds Program, said he agrees it may be time to consider an alum treatment at Lake Carmi, noting this summer’s conditions came after the state met its 2021 target for reducing phosphorus coming into the lake from external sources, such as agricultural activity in the surrounding watershed.
In water, aluminum sulfate — or alum — can bind with phosphorus, preventing the nutrient from becoming a source of algae growth. Pierson said that several years ago, an alum treatment would not have been realistic at Lake Carmi because there was still too much phosphorus entering the lake’s watershed from external sources.
A 2018 study of water treatment options for Lake Carmi pegged the cost of a one-time alum treatment at $660,000. The lake organizations’ recent letter lists an estimated cost of between $1 million and $2 million for a similar treatment.
Pierson said before spending a large amount of money on an alum treatment, officials would need to make sure — possibly using a feasibility study — that the treatment would be cost effective and provide lasting relief for locals and visitors. Lake Carmi is the state’s only “lake in crisis,” he said, but there are competing priorities, too.
“It’s just one lake in a state with hundreds of other lakes and rivers and wetlands, and other clean water priorities,” Pierson said. “It's really important to achieve those.”
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