On a Monday visit to Georgia Beach, the sun shimmered upon Lake Champlain. A boat eased off the dock, and waves lapped softly on the shore. You might never know there were toxins in these waters as recently as last week.
As of August 19, the Vermont Department of Health has listed Georgia Shore as a “high alert” site on its blue-green algae tracker. After examining a water sample from the town beach, the independent nonprofit Lake Champlain International identified at least one species of blue-green algae – known as cyanobacteria – in the water.
A high alert status is warranted by “blue-green algae in dense scums … and toxin concentrations above levels of concern,” according to the health department website. Sites with this level of toxic bloom density aren’t safe for recreational use and may cause rashes, gastrointestinal or respiratory problems in humans through skin contact, ingestion or inhalation.
The water is not safe for animals, either – blue-green algae was deemed responsible for the death of two dogs in 1999 after they drank contaminated lake water.
“It’s a big deal,” LCI Executive Director James Ehlers said. “It’s nothing you want anyone exposed to.”
Georgia Beach Manager Kerry Burke said he first spotted blooms at the recreation park last Wednesday. He put up signs warning visitors of the toxic algae and removed them on Sunday after the water returned to its normal appearance and he could see through to the bottom.
State toxicologist Sarah Vose said the health department receives information from trained monitors – the Georgia Shore station is checked weekly – as well as from town health officers and citizen reports. Vose said a resident sent her 15 photos of the Georgia bloom last week, which helped inform the high alert status. The spot was checked again on Tuesday, but an update was not available by press time.
Georgia Beach is open for public use, and the only cautionary sign warns recreationists of Eurasian milfoil, a nuisance weed that typically spreads via contaminated boats.
Along the shore, the water looks normal and lacks the thick, spilled paint appearance indicative of a lurking bloom, although the photos show a decidedly different lakefront.
Town Administrator Mike McCarthy said the state never directly contacted the town, which would merit an official order to close the beach.
Vose said the state relies heavily on public messaging, including online community guides distributed to beach managers, which include signs warning of cyanobacteria.
Although he was on vacation during the bloom’s height, McCarthy said he heard of its presence through the grapevine, and that it was present in St. Albans Bay.
“As the wind shifted, it pushed it down, and now the wind’s shifted again and pushed it back,” he said.
Burke echoed McCarthy’s statement, and Ehlers and state literature confirmed weather patterns and other conditions can rapidly break up blooms.
Absent state or federal regulation to prevent or manage blue-green algae, the health department recommends beach closure once cyanobacteria are detected. Georgia Beach remained open, albeit at “swim at your own risk” status, the status quo, McCarthy said.
Vose said the state relies on frontline officials, like beach managers, to make those calls since smaller, private shorelines fall under their purview, whereas the state manages public state parks.
Burke did make the call, using discretion to post the aforementioned signs, made by town employees, at the beachfront and boat access.
“This is a cancer for the lake.”
James Ehlers, Lake Champlain International
Although the blue-green algae appear gone at the town beach, the state recommends testing. LCI Outreach Director Eric LaMontagne warned beachgoers to be wary of recently contaminated water since toxins could be present as the bacteria breaks down.
“It looks like the blooms are still sort of lingering in that area,” said Andy Chevrefils of the state radiological and toxicological sciences program. He added the scum may become more visible during the day when temperatures rise and cyanobacteria conditions are favorable.
“Conditions do change; always be cautious and observant of what you’re going to do, and use your best judgment as you recreate,” he said.
Besides St. Albans Bay, other areas have also been plagued with the blooms this summer.
Ehlers blamed “40-50 years of ineffective government policy” for the condition of the lake, beleaguered with the bacteria that pop up like thick pea soup around shorelines.
He likened Champlain’s status to that of an advanced cancer patient: “As the disease progresses, the effects are more and more obvious,” he said. “This is a cancer for the lake.”
Ehlers pointed to phosphorus runoff from waste and fertilizers. Discarded pharmaceuticals and other personal care products, “things that didn’t exist a generation ago,” Ehlers said, compound the problem.
Ehlers regularly urges Vermonters to call the governor’s office and local representatives, hoping a steady onslaught of concerned citizens will lead to more regulation and better funding for lake cleanup initiatives.
“We have to. Our economy depends on it, and, literally, our health depends on it,” he said.
Otherwise, Ehlers predicts consequences more drastic than unsightly lake scum, like plummeting waterfront property values, for one. He derided the idea that the lake’s health is only an environmentalist cause and sees a multifaceted solution, combining government funds, regulation and enforcement. He even suggested prohibiting lawn pesticides and fertilizers.
“It’s a crime for people upstream to live their lives more comfortably and cheaply by sending their pollution downstream to make other people sick, to erode their property values, to crush their local economies,” Ehlers said.
Ehlers said affected towns like Georgia could pass local regulations requiring better stormwater management. He suggested a regional partnership with St. Albans to more aggressively manage the toxic problem in their shared waters.
As quickly as it left Georgia Shore, blue-green algae could return. Because of this, preventative efforts are more necessary than ever, Ehlers argued.
“If you were sick, do you wait for the doctor to call you and say, ‘Come in,’” Ehlers said, “or do you go to the doctor?”