Lake Champlain – You Find What You’re Looking For

Dive in!

As part of Vermont Public Radio's attention to water, LCC Staff Scientist Mike Winslow provided the following commentary for the station, which you can listen to on-line.

My first introduction to Lake Champlain came in the late 1990s, soon after I began my graduate work at the University of Vermont. The news that summer was filled with reports of algae blooms and dogs dying from swimming in the lake. One hot August day I sat on a ledge over the inviting waters and wondered what risk I was taking by jumping in.

I have spent the last 14 years studying the lake and even wrote a book about it. In that time I have learned that whatever story you want to tell about the lake, you can find evidence to support it.

If you want to lament how unhealthy the lake is: point to the flurry of algae blooms particularly at the end of July; point to the sewer overflows throughout the Champlain Basin; read the recent State of the Lake report and lament the increasing phosphorus levels in the Northeast Arm and the arrival of new invasive species.

If you want to celebrate how healthy the lake is: point to the hundreds of observations around the lake of clear, algae-free water; point to the lower E. coli levels in Lake Champlain compared to rivers around the state; or pick up that same State of the Lake and laud the declining phosphorus loads to Missisquoi Bay and the Main Lake and the decrease in sea lamprey wounding rates on trout and salmon.

Both perspectives have merit, and both need to be held in tension. If we only focus on the problems with Lake Champlain, we risk creating a populace that fears engaging with the lake, as I did on that summer day so many years ago. The lake deserves respect and engagement. It demands caution and good judgement; avoid algae blooms, be aware of the weather, and don’t swim near sewer or stormwater outfalls. But in the long run, swimming, fishing, and being around the lake will be better for your mental and physical health than avoiding the water. And the more people who use the lake and value the lake the more stewards we will have to protect it.

You see in the lake what you choose to see; what you choose to focus on. I choose today, as I did on that summer day back in the 1990s, to dive in.