The 80-point aeration system launched on Lake Carmi last week is the culmination of a year of planning — and decades of frustration.
Residents and campers around Vermont’s fourth-largest lake have faced toxic cyanobacteria blooms in late summer for as long as many can recall. Caused by phosphorus runoff from nearby farms, roads and septic systems, along with the buildup of “legacy phosphorus” on the lake’s floor, the blooms turn the water green and shut down aquatic activities.
A wave of blooms in 2017 were among the worst that locals had seen. “It was unbelievable,” said Peter Benevento, the president of the Lake Carmi Campers Association. “I had never seen it like that before.”
The campers made their case to the state the following spring, and a “crisis plan” for Lake Carmi — including an aeration system aimed at curbing the effects of the legacy phosphorous — was released in July 2018.
State officials are touting the new system as a success story of collaboration between the state, residents and farmers around the lake. But it’s only one part of a larger effort to limit runoff in the Lake Carmi watershed, and to fight pollution in other bodies of water around the state.
On this week’s podcast, VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff checks out the aeration system with John Tucci of EverBlue Lake Solutions, the state contractor behind the project. Plus, Peter Benevento and Larry Myott of the Lake Carmi Campers Association talk about why they fought for a solution — and what they hope to see in Lake Carmi’s future.
Elizabeth Gribkoff: When we arrived at Lake Carmi, we came into the State Park, it was an absolutely gorgeous early summer day.
This is our environmental reporter, Elizabeth Gribkoff.
Gribkoff: It’s hard to believe that this lake was designated last year as a “lake in crisis.” You have blue water, there were some families swimming, people out boating. And you know, it’s a fairly large lake when you get out there. It’s Vermont’s fourth-largest lake. The lake’s framed by trees and some camps. And it’s, I mean, it’s really an absolutely bucolic setting.
This week, Elizabeth and I came up to Franklin to see a new lake aeration system that local residents, researchers, and state officials all hope will curb the toxic algae blooms that pop up here almost every summer.
John Tucci: Hey, how’s it going?
Gribkoff: We got to Lake Carmi, we met up with John Tucci, who’s the head of EverBlue Lakes. And that’s the company that the state’s hired to build this aeration system. So we walk over with him to this large metal box near the lake, and there’s a faint humming noise.
Tucci: So this is one of two landside compressor systems that are driving the Lake Carmi aeration system.
Gribkoff: He opens up the lid of this box and it’s way louder, and there’s a pretty large air compressor.
Tucci: Did you take the lock off? Ready, it’s heavy…
Gribkoff: And that shoots air into this other component called a manifold, which is another metal box, you know, but a bit closer to the lake.
Tucci: It then distributes it out to all of the diffusers.
Gribkoff: Inside the manifold, the air from that one hose basically is divvied up amongst 40 different hoses. And they have valves, you can switch them on and off and kind of tinker with the system. And those then actually go into the lake water.
Tucci: Those air lines will all be bundled up and straightened out into a neat, neat bundle. And then they go out together for a couple hundred feet before they start spreading out.
Gribkoff: They kind of fan out to these ceramic diffusers that are on the bottom of the lake.
Tucci: So I’ll pull the diffuser up.
Gribkoff: John was saying that they have like a billion holes on the top of the ceramic diffusers that then shoot up oxygen bubbles into the lake.
Tucci: The air goes into this stainless steel chamber and gets distributed evenly across the surface of the ceramic underneath and coming out of this column of billions of bubbles come out of this stone, and…
What’s the end goal of all this?
Gribkoff: It’s to put oxygen into the water. But John was saying that, you know, by putting air into the water, you’re essentially continuously mixing up the lake water. And he was saying that Mother Nature actually does most of the heavy lifting in this system. Because by bringing up water that’s at the bottom of the lake to the surface, it gets in contact with the air and so is oxygenated.
Tucci: This is really a circulatory system for a lake. So 80 of these — between the two systems, we’re actually moving the entire volume of water of Lake Carmi to the surface about once every three days.
Gribkoff: And the reason why is that by having the water have more oxygen in it, you’re able to prevent phosphorus that’s kind of trapped in what he referred to as this compost pile on the bottom of the lake from being released. And phosphorus is basically like the food for cyanobacteria blooms.
Why does Lake Carmi need a whole custom aeration system like this in the first place?
Gribkoff: Carmi has been plagued by phosphorus pollution for decades. This isn’t a new problem. And a lot originally did come from — there’s a lot of dairy farms in the watershed and you had run-off going off into the lake. In recent years, there’s been a lot of work, you know, cleaning up not just farms, but also other sources, like septic systems around the lake that maybe weren’t built up to code or whatever. You know, roads eroding and getting sediment into the lake. So the state and then also other organizations — residents, farmers — everyone was kind of working together to try to reduce the amount of total phosphorus going into the lake.
But because there was so much phosphorus built up at the bottom of the lake over time, the irrigation system is really meant at targeting the phosphorus that’s already in the lake. By getting the water more oxygenated, you can prevent phosphorus from being released from the sediment at the bottom of the lake and fueling those cyanobacteria blooms. While they’re working on reducing the total amount of phosphorus entering the lake, they also just they need to deal with this, what they call “legacy phosphorous” that’s already in the lake, to try to have a more immediate impact on stopping these algal blooms.
Gribkoff: Hi, I’m Elizabeth.
Larry Myott: Elizabeth? Larry.
Gribkoff: Things at Lake Carmi kind of came to head in 2017. I mean, there’d been algal blooms for some time. We met with Pete Benevento and Larry Myott, and they’re both part of the Lake Carmi Campers Association. And Pete actually also is the vice president of the Franklin Watershed Committee. And they were saying, yeah, that it’s not like this is a new issue.
Benevento: The earliest bloom that I recall, that was significant, was 2006. And I wrote an article for the local LCCA newsletter and they closed the beach. It was in September, and it was it was one of the most significant blooms, but nothing really happened. You know, the people were upset, but since it was I think it was late September, it didn’t get the attention that the blooms in 2017 received.
Myott: I grew up here on the lake, and my aunt and uncle had a camp just down the road here.
Gribkoff: I’m curious how like, you’ve seen the water quality change over the years?
Myott: Well, yes, it has. It’s been a lot, a lot more often than it used to be, at least in my opinion. And there are some people who say, oh, it goes back to 1920, or before. Well, we don’t know that, you know, we don’t have any records of that.
But I know when I was a kid every August, we’d end up with green water. So you know, this has been going on. It’s not something that’s brand new, but it’s been getting progressively worse.
Gribkoff: But in 2017 there’s kind of this perfect storm of factors that lead to horrendous algal blooms. You know, the beaches were closed for weeks during the late summer. People we talked to who have camps around Carmi were saying, the algae blooms, it would be so bad, that summer of 2017 and other years that had been bad, that they couldn’t even go out on their decks because just this the stench of it. They obviously didn’t want to go swimming or go boating or fishing and anything like that.
Benevento: Some of them were stunning. I mean, it looks like a mosaic when you look down at the algae. It was unbelievable. I had never seen it like that before.
What do you mean like a mosaic?
Benevento: It has patterns and colors, swirls. You know? I mean, if you looked at it, and you took a piece of it, and you put it on a canvas, you’d say, oh, wow. But in the water it’s just horrible. Yeah, and it smells. And obviously you can’t do anything. It’s terrible. It’s terrible.
Gribkoff: And then Larry even was describing that he’d had these eye infections. And his doctor thought they maybe were linked to the algal bloom.
Myott: Well in 2004, no, 2005, maybe, I got an eye infection both eyes, during a bloom. You know, the wind was coming right off the lake, and we’re right there. 2017, I was around taking a lot of photos, and I got two eye infections again. This time, the doctor said I think it’s your problem at the lake.
Gribkoff: So it was really having a pretty bad effect. We also talked with Miah King, who is an interpreter up at the park. And he was saying that day use had definitely been impacted by algal blooms. I mean, obviously if the beaches are closed, people aren’t going to want to come to Lake Carmi.
Miah King: Two years ago, yeah, it was, in as far as my recollection, one of the worst years. We had it pretty early on. It has built up, but last year wasn’t as bad. So every year, it really varies according to all the local conditions going on. You know, so people still camp here. And because we have a campground, we still saw people come. But you see an effect when it’s, you know, really nice weather and you have the beach closed, people aren’t going to come stay on the beach.
Gribkoff: It was really having a detrimental effect on anyone who wanted to come visit the lake. And I think people just kind of felt like they’d had enough at that point and really wanted more immediate action to be taken. I mean, the state had been working with people in the watershed to try to clean up Carmi, but they’re just saying, no, we gotta do something quicker.
Benevento: Because of the impact of the 2017 blooms and how significantly bad they were, that’s what generated the attention and I think, finally, the motivation that, hey, we have to do something for Lake Carmi.
Gribkoff: They came to the Statehouse, you know, talking to representatives, talking to people in the state. And Carmi actually became officially designated a lake in crisis, which led to this kind of accelerated cleanup plan. And that’s where this aeration system comes in, to really try to prevent cyanobacteria blooms from happening as soon as possible by keeping that phosphorus at the bottom of lake, you know, kind of trapped there.
How are they going to know whether this is working or not?
Gribkoff: The state, and then also residents around the lake, and I think UVM as well, are going to be conducting water quality monitoring on a really regular basis. They’re going to be tracking the amount of phosphorus in the lake, the amount of dissolved oxygen. And then also, obviously they already do this, but keeping track of cyanobacterial blooms. So I think analyzing all that data will really enable everyone to get a sense of how this system is working.
Gribkoff: Actually, when we went out on the boat with John, we ran into Mark Mitchell, who’s an environmental scientist with the state.
Tucci: Who are you?
Mark Mitchell: I’m Mark Mitchell.
Tucci: You’re Mark. I’m John. Hey Mark!
Mitchell: All right.
Gribkoff: And we also ran into Pete, who we were meeting with later, in the boat.
Mitchell: Yeah we got good oxygen pretty much down to eight meters. That last little bit, it gets pretty low. But…
Tucci: Where is it at eight meters?
Mitchell: I think it’s 3 milligrams per liter? Remember that? 2.5?
Mitchell: That’s a good sign.
Gribkoff: So they were taking dissolved oxygen levels, out on a boat on the lake. So it’s kind of cool to actually get to see some that work going on.
They had their sensor just on this buoy — this little orange round buoy that just had Sharpie marker on it that just said “RESEARCH” in big block letters. That kind of cracked me up.
So these people who were really impacted by the blooms in 2017 and before — what’s their take on this big new system being installed? How are they feeling about it?
Gribkoff: They are feeling — I think optimistic is not even a strong enough word to describe how they’re feeling.
Benevento: From everything we’ve read, this is a scientifically proven means to stop the legacy phosphorus from fueling algae blooms. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. The science is there. They’ve installed other aeration systems in other lakes where it has proven to work. So we’re hoping that it works here in Like Carmi.
Myott: I am more than hopeful. Yeah, I’m excited about it. This is, this is working. This is what we need. This is the science that we’ve never had before. And we’re going to have the records and everything to go with it.
Gribkoff: They’re so excited about it, and not even that, but they’re also saying it’s just sort of, you know, ushering in this whole new wave of collaboration amongst, you know, the state, amongst farmers and campers, or I guess it’s really symbolic of this, of this collaboration. And they are really hopeful that it will, you know, as soon as this summer, start reducing the potential for cyanobacteria blooms.
Benevento: People were frustrated. People were very passionate about water quality and what had happened here, and what is happening in junction to Lake Champlain. And that helped raise awareness. Yeah, that helped raise awareness. And that did help get us here. But what it did, and what’s important about that, is that it opened up the lines of communication.
So now we have, you know, we have direct communication with the state, where we’re opening up lines of communication with the agricultural community to work with them to hopefully, you know, not change, but yes, change practices so that they don’t have an impact on the lake, that type of relationship and that type of communication wasn’t there before. Yeah. So we’re working on that. That’s what that’s a work in progress. That’s a work in progress.
Myott: I think that this installation this week, is making for a whole new attitude at the lake. And in the town of Franklin and in the state of Vermont.
And when you say that, do you mean—
Myott: A more positive attitude that, you know, something can be done for water quality, and we’re doing it.
Gribkoff: I think they also are aware that there’s no silver bullet solution for dealing with the water quality issues. So they know that the other work that’s going on the watershed, you know, needs to continue and that, yeah, there probably will still be occasional cyanobacteria blooms. I think they express a little bit of concern maybe that if people did see cyanobacterial blooms on Carmi, they might say, oh, you know, the systems not working. So I think there’s this education that’s going to be occurring about how it’s going to take some time for everything to work.
Myott: Now, sure. It’s not going to happen overnight. We all understand that. And I also know that, you know, we may get an algae bloom, it should not be nearly as bad as we’ve ever had. But when that does happen, there will be a lot of naysayers that are saying, see I told you, it’s not gonna work. But over a period of time, I think it’s going to be a very positive thing. It’s going to make some great changes.
Are there still open questions? I mean, are there still reasons for people to be skeptical?
Gribkoff: Yeah, I mean, when we talked with John Tucci, he said that this system was in the biggest lake that they’ve ever worked in.
Tucci: We like to say that we’ve been practicing for more than 10 years for this project, you know, for a project that’s this big, this important, and we’ve done other lakes up to about 500 acres, and we’ve worked in some bigger reservoirs. But this is the biggest single lake and project that we’ve done so far. And really almost anybody I think has done in the country so far.
Gribkoff: He said, we’ve been sort of training for the decade we’ve been running this business for something like this. But, you know, anytime you’re like setting up a large system like this, there could be unexpected challenges.
Tucci: We’re actually also hoping that the need for aeration will either go down or maybe eventually disappear. Right now altogether, we’re kind of looking at this as about a 10 year project.
How does this project fit into this broader question about water cleanup around the state?
Gribkoff: The day after we went up, there was a sort of an unveiling to the public of this system. The governor held his weekly press conference up there, in conjunction with other people who’ve been working on Lake Carmi.
Phil Scott: I know how important this 1400 acre lake is to anglers, birders, boaters and campers alike. We all know how devastating it was when the summer season on the lake was cut short by a long and intense blue green algae bloom in the summer of 2017.
Gribkoff: They’re sort of positioning this as a success of what can happen when the state and local residents and everyone kind of worked together to address water quality. But meanwhile, Vermont, Lake Carmi is still under this pollution reduction order. So there’s still all this ongoing work going on in the watershed.
Obviously, we also have cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Champlain. Lake Memphremagog is also under a pollution reduction order. So there’s kind of this bigger challenge that’s going on. And it could be interesting to see whether a system like this could be scaled up. But part of the challenge when I’ve talked to people at the state is that you really want to work on addressing the pollution coming into lakes, not just trying to sort of patch up what’s already there. And that’s something that’s just going to take a lot of time.
So there’s still work to do.
Gribkoff: Yeah, I would say there’s still work to do.
Got it. Thanks, Elizabeth.
Gribkoff: Thanks, Mike. And thanks for going up to Lake Carmi with me.