Valuing Lake Champlain

Paddlers and turtles enjoying Lake Champlain. Photo by Kimberly Cilla.

As state legislatures struggle to take action on long-term funding for water protection and the Trump Administration proposes radical cuts to environmental programs, Doug Facey ponders the value of our lake. Doug is a longtime LCC member and professor of biology at St. Michael's College.

There has been quite a bit of discussion over the years regarding the value of our rivers and lakes. For some very good reasons Lake Champlain has received considerable attention, but the basic concepts can be applied elsewhere. We claim to care about our waterways - but how much do we care? And how much are we willing to do, and spend, to maintain them in conditions that are acceptable for recreational opportunities and basic needs such as our water supply?

There are ways to estimate the economic value of rivers and lakes. Healthy waterways provide valuable ecosystem services, such as clean air and water. They support fish and wildlife, and provide us with recreational opportunities. People far more qualified than me can explain how indicators such as water clarity and phosphorus levels can influence property values and our tax base, which we all know depends a great deal on the willingness of visitors to come and spend time enjoying the natural resources that many of us take for granted. Those visits translate to overnight stays, restaurant visits, gasoline purchases, and tax dollars - all of which support our economy. As important as those are, however, I would like to put this issue into more personal terms.

My first experience with Lake Champlain was in the summer of 1967 - more specifically late July or early August. My family was living on Long Island, New York and had spent a few vacations in the Adirondacks in the early and mid-1960s. But in 1967 my parents decided to go further north - close to the Canadian border so that we could be within easy driving distance of Expo '67 in Montreal. We rented a camp on Sandy Point of Missisquoi Bay - at the end of the private road adjacent to the boat launch where the Route 78 bridge crosses from Alburgh over to West Swanton. Back then, the old drawbridge was still in place, and traffic had to stop so that it could open to allow tall boats to pass - many of them carrying Canadian visitors traveling south.

Expo '67 was interesting and fun, but we especially enjoyed our time on the Bay. The water was clear, the bottom mainly sand and gravel, but with aquatic vegetation that provided habitat for fish. We played in the lake, following sunfish and perch as I snorkeled among the weeds. The fishing was great. We enjoyed our vacation on Missisquoi Bay so much that we returned four out of the next five summers.

During those visits, we got to know the area a bit - enjoying trips into Swanton to get groceries at Prouty's IGA (no longer there), and stopping at a farm stand along Route 78 for fresh corn and incredible fresh-baked bread. (We learned after the first stop to buy two loaves so that there was still one left by the time we got back to the camp.) Our vacation sometimes overlapped with the Swanton festival - a carnival atmosphere on the village green at the center of town. We took a few day trips to explore some of the regional attractions. The Shelburne Museum made quite an impression; the main entrance at that time was the covered bridge to Route 7. But it was Missisquoi Bay that kept us coming back.

In the early 1970s my parents left Long Island and moved to Vermont. In the decades that followed they operated a small business in Johnson, worked in Morrisville, and taught at schools in Johnson, Cabot, and South Hero. They supported their communities with their time, tax dollars, and other contributions.

I was in college when the family moved to Vermont, and when I graduated I decided to go on for a Master's degree at UVM to study fishes of Lake Champlain. After completing my Master's degree I left New England for about 10 years. I got married, earned a Ph.D., and got my first job as a college professor. But I missed New England, and especially Lake Champlain - so when there was an opportunity in the Biology Department at Saint Michael's College, it almost felt like the Lake was calling me back. I was fortunate to be offered the position, and we moved to Vermont in 1990. In 1991 we bought a house in Burlington - we're still here. My wife now works in a lab at the University of Vermont Medical Center. Our two sons graduated from Burlington High School before moving on and graduating from colleges not far away. One worked at a local TV station for a few years, the other works in South Burlington and is a member of the Vermont National Guard. We pay taxes, support local businesses, and contribute to our community.

I know that the folks behind the models estimating the economic value of Lake Champlain do the absolute best that they can with the data available. But there are some things, things that may happen over generations, that I doubt can be easily placed into a model. In our case, a week-long vacation on Missisquoi Bay in 1967 began a cascade of events that still contributes to the Vermont economy 50 years later, and will continue for years to come.

So I wonder. What if a family's first visit to Lake Champlain was in late July or early August in the last few years? What if they vacationed on Missisquoi Bay, or one of several other parts of the lake now plagued by murky water and cyanobacteria blooms? Would they come back again and again? Will their children and grandchildren be here, supporting the local community and contributing to the local economy, 50 years from now?

I know that much has been done to try to protect and improve our rivers and lakes since my early visits to Vermont in the late 1960s. Collectively, we have upgraded wastewater treatment plants, cleaned up contaminated sites, and strengthened environmental protections. But evidently these efforts have been overwhelmed by failing infrastructure, under-enforced regulations, conversion of forests and fields to impervious surfaces, and increasing runoff as our climate changes. If we are serious about protecting our rivers and lakes, we need to do more and do it faster. The costs will only get higher as time passes and the condition of these valuable natural resources continues to decline.