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Saving Lake Champlain

Two states, Quebec join to keep New England's `West Coast' pristine. ENVIRONMENT: NEW ENGLAND

LAKE CHAMPLAIN'S future as one of New England's crown jewels appears bleak unless growing environmental problems are controlled. That is the view among politicians, scientists, and activists from Vermont, New York, and Quebec. After decades of interstate wrangling, these groups finally are developing a regional approach to saving the huge glacier-carved lake.

``We [in America] spend all our time cleaning up our mistakes,'' says Monty Fischer, legislative director for United States Rep. Peter Smith (R) of Vermont. ``Here's a chance to do a little cleanup, but to do a lot of prevention - and that's the beauty we've got here.''

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Cradled in a valley between New York's Adirondack Mountains and Vermont's Green Mountains, Lake Champlain constitutes New England's 120-mile-long ``West Coast.'' This deep lake is still considered in good condition. Yet, rapid growth along the shoreline has caused many problems, including.

Sewage overflows. Though mostly confined to the more urban areas of Burlington and St. Albans, Vt., less-populated towns whose residents have poorly functioning septic tanks also contribute waste. Burlington's problem worsens during heavy rainstorms; its sewage plant is unable to handle both storm-water and sewage flows. The untreated overflow spills into the lake, and raw sewage ends up in the water along Burlington's shores, forcing beaches to close. The city is currently upgrading its plant to separate sewage and storm water.

High phosphorus content. Sewage overflows and chemical fertilizers from agricultural runoff are two of many sources that have added an excess of nutrients to the water. This process, called eutrophication, prematurely ages the lake, causing many of the bays and shallow areas to become overfertile and full of algae.

Toxic contamination. Toxics are a serious concern, because many of the sources are unknown and money to study and monitor toxics in the lake hasn't been available. Contaminants from urban and agricultural runoff, as well as atmospheric pollutants, filter into the lake, says Alan McIntosh, director of the Vermont Water Resources Center. During the past few years, officials have advised eating only one meal a month of some species of fish due to high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

``We have enough information to know pollutants are out there, but we don't know how they're affecting the lake,'' Dr. McIntosh says.

Nuisance aquatic plants. Weeds like Eurasian milfoil and the European water chestnut spread quickly and grow thickly. They crowd out beneficial plants and wildlife and impede boats.

Lamprey eels. These parasitic creatures thrive on the lake's salmon and trout, devastating sports fishing. Vermont and New York are initiating a lamprey control program, says Jim Connolly of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

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Recreational pressures. Shoreline development and an increasing number of boats have raised questions about the need for zoning or boat-use limits. ``The whole realm of land- and lake-use issues is a very important part of the picture - and I think the most difficult one to tackle eventually, because they may conceivably involve changing lifestyles,'' McIntosh says.

Mr. Fischer adds that in its own way, the lake is ``a ticking time bomb.'' Attempts by Vermont and New York to jointly manage the lake during the last four decades have failed because of limited funds and leadership, Fischer says. The past year, however, has seen a rebirth in bistate preservation efforts. Both states, as well as Quebec, recognize that they must enact policies now.

``If we wait to see what will happen, I expect little will happen over the next year or decade,'' said Jonathan Lash, secretary of the the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, at a Lake Champlain conference here last month.

In August 1988, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D), Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin (D), and Quebec's Premier Robert Bourassa signed a four-year agreement to work together in managing Lake Champlain. The purpose of this agreement is to coordinate monitoring and research programs.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) currently is drafting a bill that would establish Lake Champlain as the sixth Great Lake. This legislation would allow Champlain to qualify for the same federal programs as the other five Great Lakes. Representative Smith is also proposing that the Environmental Protection Agency participate in the lake's management. The EPA is currently helping Vermont and New York fund a $900,000 program to study and monitor phosphorus in the lake.

Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D) of New York has proposed an amendment to the Clean Water Act that would make money from the EPA's Clean Lakes program available for Lake Champlain.

In the past, there has been no specific appropriation for the lake. Fischer says Leahy's bill and Smith's proposal to involve the EPA are possibilities of securing more funding. ``We've got to put the public money into it because it has long-term benefits for everyone,'' he says.

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