Vermont’s “pristine” lakes, necklaced with native forests and rocky shores, are fast becoming endangered. The EPA performed a national lakes survey in 2007 which highlighted poor lakeshore habitat (as measured by the amount and type of lakeshore vegetation) as the biggest problem facing the nation’s lakes, even more of a threat to lake health than phosphorous loading. A subsequent study done by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources in 2012 came to the same conclusion with regard to Vermont’s lakes. This study found that 82 percent of Vermont’s lakes are in “poor” or “fair” condition as measured by the extent “lakeshore disturbance” (buildings, docks, roads, manmade beaches, and retaining walls built at the water’s edge). That leaves only 18percent of Vermont lakes in “good” condition for the same indicator, compared to 42 percent regionally and 35 percent nationally.
Why does this matter? Environmental scientists have long known the liabilities of denuding the shore of natural vegetation: erosion caused by clear cuts and lawns down to the water’s edge; phosphorous and sediment runoff (the primary pollutants of Vermont’s lakes) during and after development; degraded shallow water and riparian habitat; bank instability during floods; increased likeliness of algae growth, mucky bottoms, and nuisance plant growth. Recent flooding events 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 reverse this trend when the average density of residential development within 100 feet of Vermont’s lakes is twice that found in our state’s urban areas? The most scientifically proven, cost effective, and expeditious shoreland management tool is a protected zone of vegetation. Furthermore, these shoreland guidelines do not preclude property owners from enjoying all aspects of the lake, including a nice view and recreational activities. In fact, the many positive effects of a forested shoreline will enhance the experience for them, as well as others who use the lake.
In Vermont, protection of lakeshores is left to each town and individual property owners. Unfortunately, exhaustive efforts in educational outreach from lake associations and the Department of Environmental Conservation have not prompted an adequate stewardship ethic. And less than 20 percent of Vermont towns have voluntarily initiated ordinances to protect lakeshores.
Ironically, for a state that takes great pride in being “green” and “earth-friendly,” Vermont is the only New England state without statewide minimum lakeshore standards. For decades we have lagged embarrassingly behind all other New England states.
A second irony is that 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. Their foresight has paid off — according to several scientific assessments, Maine’s lakes stand out as some of the most pristine in the nation. Tragically, in 1975, Vermont repealed its visionary act and our lakes have been afflicted by the consequences of that decision ever since.
The good news is that there is a very timely “clean lakes” bill currently in the Senate Natural Resources Committee. The bill’s thrust is to improve and protect Vermont lakes with a fresh approach — the management of lakeshores. While this bill does not address all the issues affecting lake health, it is a worthy first step and does target the No. 1 stressor.
Many lakeshore property owners in Vermont, including the majority of those on Lake Fairlee and Lake Morey, welcome shoreland protection regulations. We have personally witnessed the unfortunate results of inadvertently short-sighted development on the shore. For those who argue that the proposed regulations of 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 lakeshore 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.
No property owner should have unbridled rights to degrade the water quality of this public resource 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 will absorb and filter pollutants as well as nature’s wild array of native vegetation. Manmade structures and beaches cannot offer the protective cover and food for wildlife that a natural riparian zone does. In fact, man’s substitutions fundamentally undermine nature’s system of checks and balances.
We are hopeful 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 lives on Lake Fairlee in Thetford. Peggy Willey lives in West Fairlee.
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