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Is Lake Memphremagog 'In Crisis'? 3,700 Petitioners Say Yes. A Watershed Nonprofit Disagrees

Water and blue sky
John Dillon
VPR File
While more than 3,700 people have signed a petition asking Vermont to designate Lake Memphremagog a "lake in crisis," the Memphremagog Watershed Association says that designation is not what's best for the lake.

More than 3,700 people have signed a petition asking Vermont to designate Lake Memphremagog a “lake in crisis.” It's a unique label that can bring extra attention and resources to a lake the state deems severely impaired. But the environmental nonprofit Memphremagog Watershed Association says the “crisis” designation is not what's best for the lake. VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Memphremagog Watershed Association (MWA) representative and former president Mary Pat Goulding about the “lake in crisis” designation, and the complexities around water quality, ecosystem health, and public perception of the lake swirling around the petition and the designation. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Before we get into this petition and the “lake in crisis” designation, tell us what kind of challenges Lake Memphremagog faces today.

Mary Pat Goulding: Memphremagog faces the challenge of many lakes, particularly similarly to Lake Champlain, with a high phosphorus loading. We have a TMDL, just like Champlain, which is a total maximum daily load of phosphorus coming into the lake. We also have an invasive species problem. Among other things, we have the only lake that has a starry stonewort [a grass-like algae], which is [an] invasive species which can be very productive and cause much problems.

More from VPR: Who Regulates Vermont's Water? Records Show Confusion, Delayed Enforcement By Two Agencies? [February 2020]

Others have pointed out that there is some lesions on some of the [brown bullhead] fish in South Bay. That’s something that should be investigated — and is being investigated — both by the state of Vermont and federal government. And just getting people to understand how to protect the lake is one of our important projects.

A map showing the Memphremagog watershed extends through Vermont and Quebec.
Credit International Joint Commission
The Memphremagog watershed extends through Vermont and Quebec.

All of those sound like pretty serious challenges. And I mentioned that petition signed by some 3,700 people to get the lake designated as a “lake in crisis.” But the MWA put out a lengthy statement, basically saying they don't think that's the right move. Why not?

"We want people to feel that they can help to improve the lake. And if something is in crisis, it sounds a little bit more challenging." - Mary Pat Goulding, MWA

When we first heard about the "lake in crisis," it was brought to our attention by some of our members and others outside of our group, and we did some investigation and took a look at the law. And as the law reads, there are three criteria. And we do not believe that MWA meets all three criteria.

The funding that we think we need to continue some of our bigger projects is not necessarily available through that criteria. And, in addition, one of the criteria is that a municipality must consider portions of the lake, or where the lake is located, that has devalued a real property due to the condition of the lake. We didn't feel that the municipality was in a position to say that, at this point in time, nor do we see that that devaluation is happening, as people are purchasing homes.

So you don't see any negative effect on property values right now, as I understand it?

Not right now, that we are aware of. You also mentioned the designation of making something “in crisis.” That's not necessarily what we want. We want people to feel that they can help to improve the lake. And if something is in crisis, it sounds a little bit more challenging.

I think I see what you're getting at here, because it sounds like you're saying if you have the lake designated as being “in crisis,” it could, in fact bring about the very situation you're hoping to avoid, which is a devaluation of things like property values for people that may want to buy near the lake.

Correct. You know, we want to encourage people to use our lake. And by encouraging them to use our lake, they will see, “Oh, yeah, I could help in this way” or “I could help in that way.” I mean, no one denies that there are certain issues with the lake, but it's still very, very usable.

You know, [Lake] Carmi is the lake that was in crisis. And this legislation was very specific to Lake Carmi. You know, they have enormously serious problems over there, and we're not even close.

More from VPR: State Sees Progress In Lake Carmi Phosphorus Cleanup [August 2020]

The organization that's collecting signatures for that petition is a citizens group called DUMP, or Don't Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity. Here's Peggy Stevens and what she had to say about it:

“We feel that concerns for potential risk to public health, and the risk to the environment and natural resources are sufficient reasons to grant the designation. Waiting until the situation is so severe that property values are devaluating around the lake … I'm just saying, risks to public health, risks to the environment, are sufficient reasons for this designation to happen.”

Does Peggy have a point there, that if you wait too long, considering the property value situation, it may be too late for the lake?

First of all, the decision to designate a lake “in crisis” is up to [Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie] Moore. And as I read the law, all three criteria [risks to public health, risks to the environment, and diminished property values] need to be met, presumably, for that legislation [and designation] to be put in place.

"You know, they've chosen the 'lake in crisis' designation as one way to go. We have chosen another. But we may be able to work together." - Mary Pat Goulding, MWA

In terms of doing things to improve the lake, or investigating certain problems, plans could be put in place to look at specific issues,such as PFAS, the [brown] bullhead [fish], or aquatic invasive species. And that might be, in our mind, a better, more productive way to do things.

You clearly have a similar goal. You both want the lake to be healthy, you're both stewards of the lake. Is there anything that you can do — or would like to see their organization do with you and the MWA — to get on the same page, so that everybody can work together instead of being at loggerheads over whether or not to designate the lake as being in crisis?

Absolutely. We have extended an invitation to DUMP that we meet and discuss some of our overlapping concerns and identify our roles. I mean, this is a large lake, and there's room for all of us to be working toward the same goal.

You know, they've chosen the “lake in crisis” designation as one way to go. We have chosen another. But we may be able to work together.

We don't want to be competing against each other. We want to make progress.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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