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What Makes a Lake Great?

Champlain as sixth Great Lake: A view from Vermont

Dear Michigan:

By now you've all heard about the Congress approving Great Lake status for Lake Champlain.

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Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (D) worked the language which designated the lake as Great into a bill reauthorizing Sea Grant college spending.

"Most geologists and scientists have treated it as a Great Lake because of its common geological origin," explains Mr. Leahy.

But some of you Michigan folks aren't too happy about it.

I'm sitting on the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain, watching the sun go down beyond the lake and over the Adirondack Mountains, way off in New York. People over there watch sunrises top the Green Mountains on this side. What mountain ranges cradle your Great Lakes?

I understand that you're miffed over the designation of Lake Champlain as the sixth Great Lake. It's too small, you say. Well it's big enough to hold a monster. His name is Champ, and he's first cousin to Nessie. Big lakes formed by the last glaciers tended to leave monsters here and there. Didn't you get one in your lakes?

I think the squabble is partly about bragging rights and partly about money. Bragging is more fun than economics, so let's deal with that first.

Lake Champlain is six times as deep as Lake Erie and none of its tributaries ever caught fire from spontaneous combustion as the Cuyahoga River used to do. I'm sure you're glad that doesn't happen any more.

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Our lake has almost as much shoreline as Lake Ontario, but only a third of its drainage area. That's because it's flanked by two of the most impressive mountain ranges in the East, which tend to divert water elsewhere. In the flat Midwest, water from hundreds of miles away just seeps into the low spots.

It's nice to have a Great Lake that you can see across. Sort of frames the beauty of it. You may say you can see forever across your lakes, but you can't do that with ours; those views get in the way.

The people who study lakes tell us yours and ours have a lot in common. Same glacial origin, same wildlife. (Thanks for the zebra mussels and milfoil weed. Have you seen the lamprey eels we sent?)

Oh, we have some notable differences, too. Historians say the Battle of Lake Champlain was a pivotal event in keeping the northern colonies from being overrun by British troops invading from Canada in 1776 and 1777. Led to the British surrender at Saratoga, they say. And Fort Ticonderoga was another important battle site. Did anybody fight over those abandoned forts on your lakes?

We have no steel industry. Oops, you don't either, any more. Our biggest lakeside city is Burlington, with fewer than 150,000 people. We have no Cleveland, no Detroit, no Chicago, and no Buffalo. Should we weep over that?

Some of the huffing over the Great Lake designation has come from Michigan academics, and here's where it's about money.

Sen. Patrick Leahy's real purpose in requesting the Great Lake designation was to qualify us to share in the Sea Grant College program. For years the Interior and Agriculture Departments have treated Lake Champlain just like its (somewhat) larger sisters in the Midwest, funding cleanup programs to minimize the effects of pollutants. But the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can't shake research money loose from the Sea Grant program unless Lake Champlain is designated a Great Lake.

So, Michigan, now your universities will have to compete with the University of Vermont in seeking some of the $50 million that's divided up among Sea Grant colleges. The new label doesn't guarantee that Vermont will get any of that money, just that we can compete. It's so flat out there, you surely believe in "level," don't you? As in "level playing field?" Open competition, and all those good Midwestern values?

Sorry if you're miffed, but soon you'll be in good company. We may start annoying Oregon, Washington, and California, too. They're known as the West Coast.

Suppose we go to Congress and have the Vermont shoreline of Lake Champlain designated an official West Coast, too? After all, we are the West Coast of New England. And what lies beyond is a strange and foreign place. See there? Now, we've annoyed New York, too.

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