Even in winter, Lake Carmi stirs worry

Residents worry green ice in frozen Lake Carmi is a sign of cyanobacteria. Photo Mike Polhamus/VTdigger
It’s mid-March and the ice on Lake Carmi is green.
Residents of the town of Franklin, where the lake is located, worry it could signal another year of cyanobacteria blooms on the lake. There have been blooms on the lake for as long as anyone can remember, but never as bad as last year.
“It was the worst this summer I’ve ever seen it,” said 88-year-old Gilbert Dewing, whose great-grandfather farmed on 350 acres in Franklin, land his son now leases to another farmer.
Commonly called blue-green algae, cyanobacteria is a photosynthesizing bacteria that flourishes in nutrient-rich waters like those of Lake Carmi. Fed by the lake’s high levels of phosphorus, and fueled by abnormal temperatures and precipitation last year, they turned the lake’s blue waters a livid green that lasted from August to November last year.
Usually, the first hard frost, sometime in September or October, kills off the bacteria and sends its remains to the bottom of the lake, Dewing said.
So the green hue of the thin ice by the lake’s north shore has residents on edge.
“I am more concerned about what’s going to happen this season because the ice is green,” said Laurie Capsey, who with her husband owns Mill Pond Campground near the lake. “If it never went away and the ice is green, how bad is this season going to be?”
The idea of cyanobacteria lurking in the ice, or an outbreak in the spring or early summer, is not something locals even want to think about, Capsey said.
She worries about customers being scared away if word gets out what the lake looked like last summer. But she worries more about what will happen to the lake if the story doesn’t get out.
That’s the position Bill Mayo finds himself in, too.
Mayo owns the Franklin General Store, one of a handful of businesses within town limits.
Last year’s cyanobacteria bloom, which rendered Lake Carmi unsafe for swimming or drinking for three months, hurt his business, Mayo said. He depends on tourists for enough of his income that when Lake Carmi suffers, his store suffers, he said, and the town suffers, too. This is how he envisions things playing out across Vermont.
“My general feeling is that the waters of the state are the lifeblood of the state,” Mayo said. “If we as Vermonters don’t band together to fix the problem … we will see huge losses in the revenue of the state.”
The best hope for Lake Carmi, Mayo said, is a bill, H.730. currently before the legislature that would declare Lake Carmi to be “in crisis,” requiring an emergency response from the Secretary of Natural Resources.
Lake Carmi is in crisis, Mayo said, and Vermont will be, too, if vacationers come to view it as the “green water state instead of the green mountain state.”
But that’s where Mayo parts ways with the conventional wisdom about what’s the matter with Lake Carmi. Agricultural runoff has been determined to be the primary source of the phosphorus that is feeding the cyanobacterial blooms, but like many in Franklin, Mayo says before laying all the blame on farms, the state needs to do a survey of the hundreds of summer camps that line the shores of Lake Carmi, to see whether they aren’t also part of the problem.
The Environmental Protection Agency has stated, in the federal pollution-reduction order for Lake Carmi, that the camps septic systems are responsible for less than one percent of the phosphorus in the lake. The same federal order estimates that farm runoff is responsible for 85 percent of the phosphorus.
Mayo is not alone in distrusting the EPA’s numbers. Seated at a table in his store — which is also a restaurant — he hailed a friend, a regular whose business caters to local farmers, to come over and share his views with a reporter.
The friend was visibly not interested in talking to a reporter, but as the two men spoke it was clear he felt that farmers are being disproportionately blamed for the poor condition of the lake.
It’s a sentiment widely shared in this largely agricultural community — that the science must be wrong, farmers are being unfairly blamed, and summer camp owners are probably the true culprits.
“When I read in the paper that farmers are responsible for 80 percent of the phosphorus in the lake, I have a hard time with that,” said Tim Magnant, who runs a dairy not far from the general store.
Magnant’s farm is not located within the Lake Carmi watershed, and therefore has no impact on the lake’s water quality. In addition, Magnant has incorporated into his farming many of the practices scientists say will control farm pollution, such as planting cover crops, and establishing buffer zones of vegetation between fields and surface waters, and injecting manure into the soil rather than spreading it on the surface.
“I don’t begrudge doing it — it’s actually an advantage for me,” Magnant said. “That hasn’t been a bad thing — I don’t think it has. What bothers me most is the reputation farmers are getting.”
His comments were echoed by Sen. Carolyn Branagan, R-Franklin, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture who has made a point of casting doubt on EPA numbers, in particular the estimates that agricultural runoff accounts for 40 percent of Vermont’s share of the phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain, and 85 percent of the phosphorus polluting Lake Carmi.
“I question those EPA estimates, but that’s what they’re quoting,” Branagan said at a recent committee meeting. “I don’t like the fact they pulled 40 percent out of the air,” she said later.
“It isn’t just farmers,” Branagan said at another meeting of the same committee, to consider the bill declaring Lake Carmi in crisis. “Right now our efforts have been focused on farmers. They’ve said they feel under siege.”
Farmers “are stepping up to the plate,” said Magnant, but still they are being subjected to constant scrutiny, by Vermonters, by the press, by regulatory agencies. They’re frustrated, he said, that no one seems to recognize how important their industry is to the state’s survival.
It is challenging enough, he said, for farmers already coping with unfavorable economic circumstances.
“It’s not only the economics — it’s also stress,” he said. “We’re growing food for the public. Do they not appreciate that? What are they going to do without us? We don’t help the economics of this state?”
Read the story on VTDigger here: Even in winter, Lake Carmi stirs worry.