The Lake Champlain Phosphorus Crisis

John McClaughry

The Vermont legislature is now well into the final chapter of a high-stakes saga that began in 2010. At its center is the phosphorus level in Lake Champlain, especially in St. Albans and Missisquoi Bays.

The Vermont legislature is now well into the final chapter of a high-stakes saga that began in 2010. At its center is the phosphorus level in Lake Champlain, especially in St. Albans and Missisquoi Bays.

As a state document explains, “In excessive amounts, phosphorus and associated algal growth can impair recreational uses and aesthetic enjoyment, reduce the quality of drinking water, and alter the biological community. In some cases, algal blooms can produce toxins that harm animals and people.” 

In January 2010 the Conservation Law Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency.  It claimed that “CLF’s aesthetic, environmental, recreational, and economic interests in enjoying and using Lake Champlain are injured due to the lack of progress toward attainment and maintenance of water quality standards in numerous segments of Lake Champlain resulting in part from the numerous and serious flaws in [EPA’s] review and approval of the Champlain TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) of phosphorus.”

CLF argued that Vermont’s program for reducing phosphorus concentration in the Lake, based on 1991 data, provided “insufficient reasonable assurances” that the phosphorus TMDL standards would be met in the various parts of the Lake. 

 A year later the Obama EPA agreed to rescind its 2002 approval of Vermont’s water quality improvement plan, leaving Vermont to face possible sanctions on its municipal wastewater plants. That led to a plan issued in January 2013 that the State hoped would satisfy EPA and CLF by reducing phosphorus loading in Lake Champlain by 34% over twenty years.

The 2015 legislature enacted a new Clean Water Act. It expanded state regulatory authority and directed the State Treasurer to come up with some way to pay the price tag: an astonishing $2.3 billion over 20 years. After tapping an expected billion dollars in existing federal and state programs, a $62 million annual gap remains. 

The assumption is that taxpayers will have to foot much or most of this bill, rather than the private landowners and businesses that are releasing the phosphorus.

Vermont agriculture produces forty percent of the phosphorus load flowing into Lake Champlain. To meet the EPA requirements, the agricultural sector would need to shrink that flow by 205 metric tons a year.

Will $2.3 billion spent over twenty years achieve this reduction? The Department of Environmental Conservation is quick to point out that much of that huge amount of money will be spent on things other than reducing phosphorus pollution from agricultural lands. That’s true, but it also illustrates how public perception of a problem as a crisis can be used to propel the environmental conservation forward. Let’s review.

CLF sues EPA to get it to require higher TDML standards to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain. The Obama EPA agrees. It puts out new, stronger requirements, including obligatory recognition of the menace of climate change (more rainfall will erode more sediments, etc.) 

The Shumlin administration and its legislative allies enact sweeping new legislation to require more plans, mandates, inspections, rules, site visits, and technical assistance, all by government employees, and of course require penalties for noncompliance and a large tax increase. The state response now races far beyond the original problem – reducing phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain. Now it includes the entire enviro wish list of ecosystem restoration, stormwater management, wastewater treatment, nutrient management, erosion stabilization, buffer zones, highway maintenance, and much more.

This is not to say that those concerns are wrong headed or of little importance. Farms and businesses do need to be helped and prodded to adopt techniques like “Required Agricultural Practices” to reduce the pollution they cause (which, incidentally, originated with aggressive government encouragement fifty years ago). 

But a program for “reducing phosphorus pollution in the Lake” has become an all- inclusive environmental improvement program, with a new taxpayer funding source. (Treasurer Pearce favors a per parcel “fee” on land throughout the state, because we all must go “all in” to preserve the recreational and esthetic qualities of mainly St. Albans and Missisquoi bays.)

And throughout this twenty years of  spending and regulation, we will unthinkingly accept the principal cause of that 40% of phosphorus pollution in the Lake: a dairy farm business model that relies heavily on over-fertilized croplands and purchased feed, fed to thousand-cow freestall farms of 20,000 pound producing Holsteins, to produce a commodity product that chronically (to hear many farmers tell it) fails to bring in enough to cover their cost of production, justifying a perpetual procession of subsidies to keep the model afloat?

Isn’t there some more sensible way to preserve Vermont’s independent dairy farms, without channeling all that phosphorus into watercourses? Like, for instance, cutting back on heavy feed and fertilizer in favor of more regenerative grass-based dairying? Or extracting phosphorus from the manure stream (as described in the Treasurer’s report), selling it as struvite, and making dewatered manure logs into boiler fuel? Just thinking out loud.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (