Each summer, as the days get hotter, more and more folks pack up the kids and head for the water to bask in the sun, swim, boat, fish, and play. Lake Champlain, as well as Vermont’s many other lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams, provides abundant and diverse water-related recreational opportunities for young and old alike. Unfortunately, our waters are not always pristine, clear running, or free of harmful organisms. To minimize health risks and safely use aquatic resources, we need to be informed of and alert to possible dangers.
As a general rule of thumb, avoid drinking or inadvertently swallowing any untreated surface water regardless of how clear the water may appear to be. Turbid, muddy appearing water is an obvious sign of pollution. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a safe to drink even clear mountain brook water even if you have gotten away with it in the past.
Another general rule: never drink or let your kids drink water from any lake, pond or stream unless the water is properly treated or filtered regardless of how clean it appears.
The clear mountain stream water can contain Giardia. Giardia is a protozoan that causes intestinal infections sometimes referred to as “beaver fever.” Giardia infects a variety of mammals including beavers that excrete this protozoan and its cysts into surface waters.
Each year, the State of Vermont closes beaches on Vermont lakes and ponds due to coliform bacteria contamination. Harmful bacterial gets into our lakes, ponds and streams when contaminated with fecal material which can come from feces in diapers, pets, wildlife, malfunctioning septic systems, stormwater runoff or sewage treatment overflows. Be especially vigilant immediately after heavy rainfall events.
It is best to stay out of the water when beaches are officially closed or there are other indications of water contamination. You can check the status of Vermont State Park beaches at http://www.vtstateparks.com/htm/swimming.htm. Obey beach closure signs.
Blue-green algae blooms have become more frequent in Lake Champlain as well as other lakes and ponds in Vermont due to increased nutrient levels. Cyanobacteria toxin effects on humans are not well understood but have been linked to human health and animal illnesses around the world.
Toddlers and children love to explore the shore and water. They may be more likely to be exposed and more sensitive to disease causing organisms and toxins than adults. Parents need to be vigilant and take action to keep children safe.
Stay safe by paying attention to water color and turbidity as well as to the surrounding landscape. Apply common sense and avoid ingestion or exposure to waters that are obviously or likely to be contaminated.
Our lakes and streams provide great opportunities for everyone to enjoy the outdoors each summer. Risks do and always will exist. These should not keep you from enjoying Vermont’s waters.
Wayne Laroche is Conservation Director at Lake Champlain International. He has 40 years of experience with fish, wildlife and conservation issues. He holds a MSc. in fisheries management and a Bsc. in wildlife management. He has worked extensively as a research biologist and environmental consultant publishing a dozen scientific papers. He was Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife for eight years.