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Beached: Dairy Pollution & Toxic Water

Vermont’s Department of Health would like beach-goers, swimmers, and water recreationalists of all types to add another item to their aquatic planning: check the state’s “Cyanobacteria Tracker” website to see if the river, pond or lake they’re seeking to enjoy isn’t too toxic for them or their pets. And check it frequently, they advise, especially in the summer months when cyanotoxins are at their highest levels. Other than that, enjoy the water.

This is not good. There is a deep discordance between the marketing of Vermont’s waterways as clean and pure and the dire warnings from the Department of Health about acute water toxicity, particularly at the more than 100 Vermont lakes and rivers dirty enough to be classified by the EPA as “impaired.” It spells doom for Vermont’s outdoor tourism industry, built upon an image of reverence for our land and water.

It is accepted science that more than half of Vermont’s water woes are the direct result of agricultural practices employed by mega-dairies, from poor manure management to excessive use of fertilizers. It is perhaps the greatest warning sign yet to Vermonters that the impacts of industrial dairy production reach far beyond the farm, threatening not just our image of being protectorates of our natural resources but are ability to enjoy them.

Vermont’s waterways are monitored for health and safety in a number of ways. One is by calculating the ratio of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus found in phytoplankton, a nutrient check of sorts. It’s called the Redfield ratio, and healthy bodies of water have about 16-to-20 parts of nitrogen to every part of phosphorus. By comparison, many sections of Lake Champlain and other popular Vermont rivers and lakes will show ratios closer to 10-to-1, a phosphorus-rich blend that promotes the growth of the toxic blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria and the toxins they emit can cause a host of health problems, from the relatively minor like rashes or a sore throat to more serious stomach problems. Dogs – and certainly wildlife — have died from ingesting the cyanotoxins found in Vermont’s waters.

The Vermont Department of Health pulls no punches when it comes to warning people about the extreme dangers of coming into contact with these toxins, including a rather ominous spotlight it puts on “cyanobacteria and neurological diseases.” The fact sheet linked to its tracker website includes this swimming killjoy:

“BMAA is an amino acid produced by some cyanobacteria. Researchers are testing the hypothesis of a link between BMAA exposure and ALS. This research is very preliminary and has not been proven. The Health Department will continue to review information as it becomes available.”

It’s why the Vermont Department of Health is taking the issue so seriously, working with nonprofits and concerned citizens to collect and share as much information as possible about cyanobacteria outbreaks. Its “Cyanobacteria Tracker” site is a sobering and valuable tool, by highlighting the dangers, providing information necessary to help identify these bacterial blooms, and giving clear warnings about the state of our waterways.

Last summer (2017), the “Cyanobacteria Tracker” site had hundreds of warnings about public waterways it has declared to be at “low alert” or “high alert” levels for cyanobacteria toxins. It’s a frightening commentary on the way we’ve allowed dairy farms to become so big as to be antithetical to any reasonable ecological or animal welfare standards. Vermont beaches are closed or on their way to being closed because of the way the state has allowed dairy farms to grow beyond recognition, with smaller farms being gobbled up and thousands of cows put under a single roof, where cows never put a hoof on pasture – ever. Sadly, cows on grass are a thing of the past in Vermont’s industrial, nonorganic dairying.

And the results are as obvious as beach closures and health warnings about even touching the water we once splashed in and drank from without fear. Vermont shouldn’t be in a position of asking beach-goers to check the toxic profile of the water they’re seeking to enjoy. That’s not the Vermont any of us want.