What is your relationship with Lake Champlain?
Think about how you interact with Lake Champlain. Do you live near it? Walk along its shores? Perhaps you swim, boat, paddle, fish, or even just skip the occasional stone. Maybe you photograph the sunsets or watch the birds from the shores. Regardless of what you do, your relationship with Lake Champlain is likely even more fundamental than recreation–the lake sustains those who live within its basin. According to the Lake Champlain Basin Program (LCBP), an estimated 20 million gallons of water are pumped from the Lake each day to supply drinking water to about 145,000 people. Chances are, you are using the lake every time you turn on a tap or flush your toilet. The water that passes through you to keep you alive is the same water that flows through the lake–it is literally your lifeblood.
October 20 was dubbed as “Imagine a Day without Water” by the Value of Water Campaign. It’s an invitation to reflect on the importance of water by trying to imagine a day without it, and to motivate people to act as stewards and advocates for clean water and water equity in their communities. It may be challenging for those of us who live in the Champlain watershed for a number of reasons. For one, Lake Champlain is a massive concavity in the earth that would be a large canyon were it not filled with water.
The infrastructure that carries our water is what makes it so accessible in its treated form. This infrastructure is largely unseen and often underappreciated. Safe and functioning water systems require immense work, upkeep, and investment. It is an amazing feat to have clean water available in our homes with the turn of a tap, and the people and systems that enable this deserve attention. A failure in these systems would result in a lack of available public water, despite our large freshwater reservoir of Lake Champlain. It is easy to take our water for granted, but vital that we do not.
Many do not have to imagine a day without water
The “Imagine a Day without Water” campaign is a useful tool for those fortunate enough to have easy access to fresh water. There are, however, areas even in the US, even in 2022, where this is not the case. Just this past September, Jackson Mississippi went weeks without clean water. It was the culmination of years of underfunded water infrastructure systems in the city–a city in which over 80% of the population is Black and about a quarter live below the poverty line according to the US 2020 Census. The crumbling water infrastructure in the city has largely affected communities of color, an example of environmental injustice. This term refers to the unfair exposure of poor and marginalized communities to environmental degradation and hazards. It is a pattern that is repeated nationwide–from Flint MI, to the Bronx, to LA. Again and again there are instances of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and low-income communities bearing disproportionate burden of environmental hazards and suffering from lack of public infrastructure investment.
This pattern of inequity can also be seen right here in the Lake Champlain basin. Lake Champlain is a shared, public trust resource that is collectively owned by all. This principle of collectivity does not always translate to equitable access–while it is a common resource, access to that resource may be stratified by race and class. This is why it is so important to create and steward public access to the lake with beaches, recreation trails, fishing and boating areas. They offer the opportunities for direct relationships with the lake, like swimming, fishing, and paddling, for all people and not just those with resources or access to private lakefront areas.
When a beach closes due to cyanobacteria blooms or hazardous discharge, everyone who uses that beach is impacted. However, their impact is not borne equally. Those without access to cars or private shoreline may be limited to a few beaches, while those with cars have a wider range of choices. Those with access to private beaches are able to retreat to those, while those without are reliant on public beaches alone.
In May of this past year, Vermont passed Act 154—an act relating to environmental justice. It established an environmental justice policy by requiring state agencies to incorporate environmental justice into their work, rules, and procedures. It also established an Environmental Justice Advisory Council and an Interagency Environmental Justice Committee to advise the state on environmental justice issues. New York State has an Office of Environmental Justice within the Department of Environmental Conservation. Having state-level agencies that seek to promote environmental justice is a step toward more equity in water-related issues and lake access.
In order to achieve environmental justice in the Lake Champlain basin, we need to work towards well-supported public water infrastructure in all communities regardless of demographics and equitable access to Lake Champlain. Environmental justice is often thought of only in terms of environmental hazards—whose air is polluted? Whose groundwater is contaminated? We need to include the distribution of environmental benefits into our thinking around environmental justice. Here in the basin, this means increased access to Lake Champlain through well-protected, free public access points. It also means continued efforts to monitor and reduce cyanobacteria blooms and other drivers of beach closures and water quality degradation. Imagining a day without water must remain a mental exercise that drives us to steward the water we have and to build a community in which all have equal access to our water resources.
Lake Look is a monthly natural history column produced by the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC). Formed in 1963, LCC is a bi-state nonprofit that uses science-based advocacy, education, and collaborative action to protect and restore water quality, safeguard natural habitats, foster stewardship, and ensure recreational access. You can join, renew your membership, make a special donation, or volunteer to further our work.