Cyanobacteria testing, potential mitigation continues as Vermonters navigate closed beaches this summer
BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Sunday, all of Burlington’s beaches were open. But, it’s no secret that cyanobacteria has hampered multiple beach days this summer.
For some Burlingtonians, the summer routine includes checking to see what beaches are closed due to cyanobacteria blooms or blue-green algae.
“We do keep an eye on it because we have grandkids that come down here,” said Art Swanson of Burlington.
“I think about it daily,” said Donna Seymour of South Burlington.
Cyanobacteria blooms are triggered by warm, still water, and nutrients that runoff into the lake, like phosphorus. They can emit toxins that could cause harm to humans and animals.
“Just when you need or people need to go in the water it seems there’s an issue with bacteria,” said Seymour.
The Lake Champlain Committee is made up of around 200 volunteer testers on Lake Champlain’s public shorelines in Vermont, New York and even Quebec.
They partner with the state and municipalities like Burlington, which has had more than a dozen beach closures since mid-July.
“They’re fairly conservative about when they’re going to close a beach. They recognize that this is a threat to public health. If they have cyanobacteria in their swim area, they’re closing the beach and the Lake Champlain Committee fully endorses that approach,” said Lori Fisher, the executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee.
Fisher notes that the city of Burlington has resources to test the water daily, which is a summer priority due to the number of beaches and people there.
But she says not every area has the ability to test daily. The committee’s volunteers test weekly, and then daily when they spot a bloom.
For example, Fisher says an area that historically has consistent blooms is the St. Albans and Missisquoi bays, but that the LCC doesn’t have as many monitors in the area as they’d like to get a sense of what’s going on.
Sunday, all of Burlington’s beaches were open.
“But St. Albans Bay Park is closed due to a bloom. So you know that it’s going to vary. It’s going to pingpong back and forth,” said Fisher.
No matter where you are on the lake, Fisher notes that cyanobacteria blooms are becoming more and more common due to a warming climate.
“You have the shallowness of our beach areas. Those are ideal environments. It’s kind of like a petri dish and creating that. That’s why we’re seeing many closures at our beaches,” said Fisher.
Fisher says we are in the first third of a 20- to 22-week cyanobacteria bloom season, so it’s a bit too early to know how this year will shape up compared to years past.
The city of Burlington is looking for ways to decrease the amount of phosphorus going into the lake, which is a contributing factor to cyanobacteria blooms.
Water Resources Director Megan Moir notes that sewer overflows are not a major contributor to cyanobacteria blooms. But, they will be rolling out one aspect of their Integrated Water Plan in the fall to do what they can to minimize phosphorus that enters the lake.
They will be pilot testing different tertiary treatment technology that would remove phosphorus at the main wastewater treatment plant.
“The wastewater treatment plants already get out a massive amount of phosphorus on the order upward of 90% removal. But there is still a small amount that we calculate that Burlington in order to meet the cleanup plan needs to find about 1,100 pounds of phosphorus to stop from going into the lake,” said Moir.
Moir says that this 1,100 of phosphorus is what Burlington is left with annually between stormwater and wastewater.
While Burlington is the largest city of the total amount of phosphorus going into the lake, Moir notes that the contribution is around 5% of the lake’s total phosphorus content.
Moir says the city has sufficient funding for the pilot stage and will be meeting to seek more funding for the actual construction of the treatment once they choose which one they prefer.
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