E4A Takes on Water Quality

This summer the nine PhD students and two MS students in the Economics for the Anthropocene’s (E4A) water cohort will be participating in a problem-based field course in Vermont looking at water quality issues in the Lake Champlain Basin. One of the goals of the E4A program is to seek solutions to real-world problems and, as those of us who live in Vermont know, phosphorous pollution in Lake Champlain is a very real problem. Despite efforts to clean up the phosphorous in Lake Champlain in the last couple decades, the levels of phosphorous in the lake has been stable or rising since 2007 (LCBP, 2012). The high levels of phosphorous in the lake have led to large algal blooms, beach closures, and poor water quality (LCBP, 2012).

Due to high levels of phosphorous, Lake Champlain suffers from seasonal algal blooms and poor water quality.

The issue of water quality in Vermont is not simply a question for scientists and researchers, but an issue of major public concern. One heated public debate centers on who is responsible for the sources of phosphorous to the lake and who should pay for the clean-up. These sources are divided up into point sources and non-point sources. Point sources are specific physical locations that contribute pollution to the lake, such as a waste-water treatment plant. Alternatively, non-point sources are more diffuse sources of pollutants spread throughout the landscape, such as the contribution of phosphorous to the lake from storm water. As might be obvious just through these definitions, non-point source pollution is much more challenging to regulate than point source pollution.

Within the Lake Champlain basin, point sources of phosphorous account for about 5% of the total pollution and non-point sources account for the remaining 95% (LCBP, 2010). The primary sources for non-point source pollution of phosphorous in the Lake Champlain Basin are agricultural runoff, soil erosion, and urban storm water runoff (LCBP, 2010). In the E4A field course this summer, our cohort will be grappling with the issues of addressing non-point source pollution in the Lake Champlain Basin through meeting with researchers, community members and government officials with the goal of contributing solutions to the problem.

Recently, Vermont Public Radio hosted a show titled “Farms, Water Quality, And No Easy Answers.” The show hosted Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Chuck Ross, and the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation, David Mears, discussing non-point source phosphorous pollution in Vermont. This forty-five minute show is a great introduction to the current state of the issue, the stakeholders involved, and many of the challenges involved in tackling the problem of non-point source phosphorous pollution in the Basin.


A podcast of the Vermont Public Radio show can be found here:

For more information on the state of Lake Champlain and the current opportunities for action in the basin, check out the Lake Champlain Basin Program, a partner of the E4A project, and the following reports:

Lake Champlain Basin Program. (2012) State of the Lake and ecosystem indicators report. Retrieved from:

Lake Champlain Basin Program. (2010) Opportunities for Action. Retrieved from:

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