By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
Homeowners-turned-volunteers on Lake St. Catherine — on Route 30 southwest of Rutland — have worked to preserve the lake’s ecology for 40 years. They’ve monitored invasive species, measured water clarity and tested for nutrients, such as phosphorus, that can cause toxic algae blooms.
Now, through a $38,000 grant from the Lake Champlain Basin program, they’re becoming one of several lake associations around the state involved in a three-year “watershed action plan,” designed to maintain the long-term health of the lake and contribute to the health of the larger watershed.
Jerremy Jones, whose grandfather bought a camp on the lake in the 1950s, moved to Lake St. Catherine full-time in 2017 and has been a volunteer trustee since then. He described how, every year, volunteers on vessels have sunk black and white discs into the water to measure water clarity.
“We have those. We have phosphorus measurements — 40 years of that,” he said. “So this would be taking it to the next level, where instead of just going to the same area once or twice a year, this would be expanding that testing program to, hopefully, set a baseline.”
A watershed action plan is designed to pinpoint the sources of lake pollution that “result in water quality and habitat degradation,” said Oliver Pierson, who manages the state’s lakes and ponds program.
The plan then prioritizes a list of projects that can slow the pollution or degradation of habitat.
“It’s very much an action-oriented plan to help address stressors to a lake,” Pierson said. “In Vermont, this is a pretty new approach.”
Lake St. Catherine, which is 5 miles long and a total of 930 acres, eventually flows into the Mettowee River, then into the southernmost section of Lake Champlain, where environmentalists have been working to significantly reduce concentrations of phosphorus.
The grant will fund 20 projects at Lake St. Catherine and will allow the association’s 15 volunteer trustees to collaborate with the Poultney Mettowee Natural Resources Conservation District, scientists at Castleton University, a lake scientist and nearby municipalities.
The plan could include strategies to curb erosion, runoff from roads, excess nutrients coming in from shoreline properties and tributaries, construction of new buildings — anything that affects lake health. It will also consider the way climate change affects the lake.
“You can identify what we call ‘lake-wise’ projects, to work with those homeowners and make their property more lake-friendly — plant vegetation, slow the water down, put in water bars, all kinds of interventions to just reduce nutrient loading and stormwater runoff from those properties,” Pierson said.
Martha Pofit, vice president of the Lake St. Catherine Association, grew up in Granville and now lives at the lake full time. She said she hopes the new plan will help improve and support communication with landowners on Lake St. Catherine.
“We’re trying to create this army of ambassadors for the lake and incentivize good behavior,” she said. “As people are investing in their own properties and seeing the results of it, there is a greater push to identify and isolate any bad actors. People may not be, say, complying with Act 67 — partially through ignorance, but partially not.”
While the state has monitored the health of Lake Champlain and other big lakes across the state for years, organizations, including Lake Champlain Basin Program and the state’s Agency of Natural Resources, are beginning to look closely at the health of smaller lakes.
Pierson said the nitty-gritty data will contribute to larger tactical basin plans, which are long-term monitoring programs for the 15 largest watersheds in the state.
The process for other watershed action plans will begin at Lake Iroquois, Caspian Lake and Fairfield Pond, several have already been completed at Lake Eden and Lake Elmore, and one at Lake Dunmore is in the works.
All of those projects are funded through the Lake Champlain Basin Program, and the state is working to provide funding for two additional water bodies outside of the Champlain Basin — Maidstone Lake and Lake Fairlee.
“We view this as a really important tool to help lake associations and communities and their partners adjust water quality issues in the lake,” Pierson said, “and then contribute to these broader phosphorus reduction goals under the TMDL [total maximum daily load] for Champlain. With Maidstone and Fairlee, those contribute to other broader regional goals in their respective parts of the state.”
Once a watershed action plan is complete, lake associations can apply for more money from the state’s Clean Water Initiative Program.
Pofit said she hopes Lake St. Catherine’s action plan prompts other lake associations. “We just want to be a template,” Pofit said. “We’re not Lake Champlain, so it’s controllable. I think we can measure the before-and-after impact of how we do.”