Looking out my window at a fresh pile of snow gets me thinking about next summer’s vacation. As a family we like nothing better than to relax next to one of Vermont’s beautiful lakes where we can swim, canoe, and fish. But it is getting trickier to decide where to go.
Last year we rented a camp on Lake Champlain. The photos showed it was right on the water – with a lovely dock and a beautiful view. We were disappointed to find that, although we had a beautiful view of the lake, we could not swim or fish from the dock or shore because the water was too choked with weeds. As you can imagine, the owners of the camp felt badly about this. They had been thinking of selling, but worried that because of the water quality problems they would not get a reasonable price for their property.
Our experience on Lake Champlain is not unique. Vermont has over 800 lakes and ponds, and many of these are stressed by excess phosphorus, invasive species and acid rain. According to the 2007 National Lake Assessment Study, Vermont lakes rate in worse condition than others in the region and the nation in terms of the extent we disturb our immediate lakeshores with structures, lawns and seawalls.
The cumulative impact from individual property development is the most widespread stressor to Vermont lakes. Vermont is the only state in New England with no required lakeshore development review or standard. Consequently, many lakeshore residents clear their shore and remove most of the vegetation. Lawns are planted instead, impacting lake water quality and damaging aquatic habitat.
Weeds grow out of control and there are algae blooms in our lakes and ponds when there is too much pollution from erosion, sediment and runoff from the watershed and lakefront. There is a consensus among scientists that naturally vegetated shorelines do a good job protecting water quality and aquatic habitat. Native trees and shrubs stabilize banks and filter dirty water, keeping Vermont lakeshores resilient to flooding and erosion and protected from polluted runoff. In fact, no man-made engineered design can compete with the effectiveness or cost of nature’s design for stabilizing lakeshores.
But, native lakeshore vegetation can only do its job if we leave it in place. That is why one of my top priorities this year is working with the legislature to pass H.223, a bill to protect the water quality in our lakes and ponds. H.223 balances landowners’ interest in developing their property with the need to protect the natural vegetation along the shorelines of Vermont’s lakes and ponds. It focuses on new development, and provides flexibility that will allow landowners to put in paths and picnic areas, and to establish views, while at the same time leaving sufficient vegetation in place to protect the water quality.
Over the past forty years Vermont’s lakeshore management approach relied on education, outreach, citizen monitoring, and technical assistance programs, but we have seen that education alone is not enough. In addition, while a number of municipalities have shoreline regulations, only six have regulations that meet the standard known to protecting water quality and aquatic habitat. This tells us that H.223 is long overdue.
We need to act quickly to protect our lakes and ponds – not only to ensure our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy these precious resources, but because it is important for Vermont’s economic security. Vermont lakes bring in tourism dollars – almost ˝ billion annually. Vermont businesses move to and stay in Vermont because of the quality of life here – which includes easy access to swimming, fishing and boating. And, as my camp owner knows, healthy lakes are needed to maintain property values.
I invite you to learn more about this important issue – and to get involved. Vermont has no more important natural asset than clean water for swimming, fishing, boating and drinking. Working together we can keep it that way for future generations.