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Column: Shoring Up Protections for Vermont Lakes

A kayaker paddles out into Lake Fairlee from the dock at Treasure Island in July 2010. (Valley News - Jason Johns)

A kayaker paddles out into Lake Fairlee from the dock at Treasure Island in July 2010. (Valley News - Jason Johns)

Vermont’s “pristine” lakes, necklaced with native forests and rocky shores, are fast becoming endangered. The biggest problem is not too much pollution but degradation of lake-shore habitat. A study by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources in 2012 concluded that 82 percent of Vermont’s lakes are in “poor” or “fair” condition as measured by the extent of “lake shore disturbance” (buildings, docks, roads, man-made beaches and retaining walls built at the water’s edge). By that measure, just 18 percent of Vermont lakes are in “good” condition, compared with 42 percent regionally and 35 percent nationally.

Why does protection of lake shores matter? Environmental scientists have long known the risks of denuding lake shores of natural vegetation: clear-cuts and lawns down to the water’s edge cause erosion; accelerate phosphorous and sediment runoff, the primary pollutants of Vermont’s lakes; degrade shallow water and riparian habitat; cause bank instability during floods; and increase the likelihood of algae growth, mucky bottoms and nuisance plant growth. Recent flooding from extreme weather, particularly after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, demonstrated that wooded shores are more resilient to high water and wave action than cleared shores or those with retaining walls.

So how do we protect Vermont’s lake shores? The most scientifically proven, cost-effective and expeditious shore-land management tool is a protected zone of vegetation. Fortunately, a timely “clean lakes” bill currently in the state Senate Natural Resources Committee would improve and protect Vermont lakes through the management of lake shores. While the bill does not address all issues affecting lake health, it is a worthy first step and does target the primary stressor on lakes, including Lake Fairlee and Lake Morey.

Currently, protection of lake shores in Vermont is left to a patchwork of varying town regulations and the inclinations of property owners. Fewer than 20 percent of Vermont towns have lake-shore ordinances. Educational outreach and other conservation efforts by lake associations and the state Department of Environmental Conservation have not prompted an ethic of adequate stewardship.

For a state that takes great pride in being “green” and “Earth-friendly,” Vermont is, ironically, the only New England state without statewide minimum lake-shore standards. For decades we have lagged embarrassingly behind all other New England states. And yet Vermont actually led this movement back in 1970 by proposing the very first state shoreland protection standards in New England. Maine followed Vermont’s lead with a “Mandatory Shoreland Zoning Act” in 1971. Maine’s act has paid off; according to several scientific assessments, Maine’s lakes stand out as some of the most pristine in the nation. Vermont, meanwhile, repealed its visionary legislation in 1975, and its lakes have been affected by the consequences ever since.

Many lake-shore property owners in Vermont, including those on Lake Fairlee and Lake Morey, welcome shoreland protection regulations. We have personally witnessed the unfortunate results of shortsighted development along these shores. For those who argue that the proposed regulations of the clean-lakes bill (H.526) are an infringement of their property rights, we would remind them of the concept of a public trust. The privilege of living on the lake shore carries with it responsibilities. We have an obligation to preserve the integrity of the lakes’ ecosystems because the lakes, in fact, belong to the general public, not to individual property owners.

The current bill does not prevent property owners from enjoying a view or from engaging in recreational activities. However, no property owner should have unbridled rights to degrade the water quality by destroying the protective measures nature has set in place. No fabricated concrete “sea wall” can prevent erosion as well as the tapestry of tree roots and embedded stone that have been there for decades. No manicured lawn can absorb and filter pollutants as well as nature’s array of native vegetation. Man-made structures and beaches cannot offer the protective cover and food for wildlife that a natural riparian zone does. In fact, man’s substitutions undermine nature’s system of checks and balances.

We hope that lawmakers will, at long last, consider the legacy they would like to leave Vermonters. In the apt words of environmental writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams, “The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. Wild mercy is in our hands.”

Libby Chapin, a resident of Thetford, and Peggy Willey, a resident of West Fairlee, have helped the community restore vegetative buffers along Lake Fairlee and in its watershed.