Audit Finds $67M Cleanup of Vermont Lake Yet to Show Results

Gov. Jim Douglas' $67 million effort to clean up pollution in Lake Champlain has made an impressive start in some areas, but has yet to show results, a new audit concludes.

"Clean and Clear has allowed for the expansion of high quality water-quality programs, some of which are national models," said the audit by engineers assembled by the Green Mountain Institute for Environmental Democracy in Montpelier.

"But there is not evidence that those programs are sufficient for meeting phosphorus reduction targets," it adds.

Douglas promised a major effort to reduce phosphorus, a plant nutrient found in manure and fertilizer, in 2003, after swimming had to be banned in Missisquoi Bay due to toxic algae blooms. He dubbed the program his "Clean and Clear" initiative.

The governor said he wanted the work done by 2009, in time for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer for whom the lake is named. Since then, administration officials have acknowledged the pollution battle will take years longer.

The audit said it's likely that new programs put in place to reduce phosphorus-laden runoff likely are having an effect. But it added that the efforts appear to have been offset by some countervailing factors:

— Recent rainy years have meant more runoff laden with phosphorus from farm fields and suburban lawns;

— More construction of buildings and pavement, which means less land absorbing rainfall and more running off;

— And what the report called "a lag time between action and outcome."

Release of the report this past week prompted both a defense by administration officials and a fresh round of criticism from environmental groups and some lawmakers.

"I think the audit report gives us very high grades, considering the complexity of the issue we're dealing with," said Natural Resources Secretary George Crombie.

Senate Natural Resources Chairman Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, read it differently.

"Anyone who concluded everything is hunky-dory is in denial," she said. "I use the analogy of a hockey team: You can recruit the best players, hire the best coach, build the best game plan. But if you don't set the goal to win and don't implement the plays adequately, the puck never goes in the net."

Julie Moore, the director of the Clean and Clear program, said the agency already had been contemplating some of the program improvements called for in the audit.

Chris Kilian, director of the Conservation Law Foundation's Vermont office, said the results of the administration's efforts — no measurable reduction in phosphorus in the lake — show that, "Clearly, more needs to be done."