This commentary is written by Eyal Harel, a clean water advocate and CEO of BlueGreen Water Technologies, a global water-tech company whose mission is to restore, safeguard and optimize the health of water bodies worldwide. This week, Harel is set to visit Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi, which is experiencing an outbreak of toxic algae.
On an August day in 2004, Christopher Swain stepped into the chilly waters of Lake Champlain in Whitehall, New York, and began an epic swim covering the entire length of the lake, all 125 miles.
Swain describes swimming through sticky clouds of manure runoff, around scummy tangles of toxic blue-green algae, and through twisted stems of invasive water chestnuts; breathing in the reek of fertilizer and the stench of sewage foam. At one point, Swain discovered a blood-sucking parasitic eel known as a sea lamprey had latched onto his leg. You might be wondering what on earth he was thinking.
Swain is an aquatic activist who has stroked across — and survived — some of the most polluted waterways in America, earning The Toxic Swimmer moniker. He is on a mission to sound the alarm about the plight of America’s contaminated waterways. Lake Champlain is by no means the worst water body Swain has endured, and its toxic blooms tend to be isolated to the same locations year after year. But that 2004 journey from Whitehall to Quebec called attention to a problem that persists to this day: the grand lake is in need of healing.
The 435-square-mile Lake Champlain is a source of drinking water for nearly 200,000 people. Its waters hold over 70 islands and boast the oldest fossil coral reef in the world. On a typical summer day, ring-billed gulls and ospreys can be seen soaring above, while great blue herons and double-crested cormorants stalk the shallows. Families come to Champlain’s shores to lounge and play, to build sand castles and memories that inspire the next generation, and the next, to follow in their footsteps.
But like too many other treasured lakes across the country, blooms of pea green algae produced by a rapid overgrowth of cyanobacteria have also become part of the summer ritual on parts of Lake Champlain. The recurring menace arrives without fail in mid-to-late summer and can linger into fall. The causes are familiar: runoff carrying nutrient-rich pollutants from farms, roadways, and residential lawns flow into the lake and stimulate cyanobacterial blooms.
These pernicious eruptions suck up oxygen, smother sensitive ecosystems, kill marine life, and produce toxins that pose a danger to people and pets, put drinking water supplies at risk, and damage livelihoods and local economies.
October marks 50 years since Congress overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto and passed the landmark Clean Water Act, then known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972. The Safe Water Drinking Act followed in 1974. By then, Americans had already embraced the fledgling environmental movement and were demanding action to protect Earth’s most precious natural resource — water.
The Clean Water Act is credited with bringing America’s rivers, lakes and streams back to life. But it is not enough. To adequately address this threat, the U.S. needs a nationwide monitoring program overseen by a single federal agency. What exists now is a state-by-state patchwork of uneven, mostly voluntary reporting. NOAA’s harmful algal bloom tracking program is excellent, but it only covers certain regions.
A June 2022 Government Accountability Office review of federal efforts to manage harmful algal blooms concluded a comprehensive and coordinated national program to guide these efforts is needed. Yet nearly a quarter century since Congress directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to develop such a plan, we still do not have one. What is the holdup?
There are consequences to inaction, which we continue to witness, even with five decades worth of protection by the Clean Water Act and other regulatory protections that followed.
Eighteen years after Christopher Swain’s legendary swim, Lake Champlain’s problems persist. Yet we can find reason for hope. Elected officials and policymakers at all levels of government have been working hard to address this challenge. Vermont signed its own Clean Water Act into law in 2015. The EPA established new recommended limits for cyanotoxins in 2016. New York, Vermont and the federal government have poured billions of dollars into restoration efforts. And concerned lake advocates and volunteers are on the ground monitoring algae conditions and collecting data for public use.
But we must do more. We must prevent harmful algal blooms from occurring in the first place and, when they do occur, implement effective treatments that quickly restore the water quality to safe levels. Fifty years after one of the most consequential environmental laws hit the books, it is time to step up the pace, to put a national program in place, and to finally heal Lake Champlain.