05.29.13

Remarks of Senator Patrick Leahy: "Leahy Center Environmental Summit: Blue Water In Green Mountains" Echo At The Leahy Center For Lake Champlain

Good morning, and welcome to the Leahy Center Environmental Summit.  When I think about it, it is hard to believe that 10 years have passed since the doors were opened to this center for learning, research, and the exchange of ideas.  Since then, well over one million visitors have passed through its doors.  Children and adults alike have explored its exhibits, learned about our “Great Lake,” and opened their eyes to the world of environmental science.  This is a true public-private partnership, and I couldn’t be prouder that we are commemorating this milestone anniversary with this important summit, “Blue Water in Green Mountains.”

The Lake has a rich history.  Lake Champlain has been described as, “a living body, not a passive witness to history.”  So true.  It has been a part of history.  Let me tell you a Cliff’s Notes summary of just some of the highlights. 

In the modern era, the Battle of Valcour Island in the Revolutionary War that was a short-term military defeat but a crucial strategic victory for the Americans that helped win the War of Independence. Then it was another Lake campaign, the Battle of Plattsburgh, that helped end the War of 1812.  And more recently, in Congress, there was the Battle of “Great” Lake Champlain, of 1998.  I remember it well.  The Michigan congressional delegation had taken it practically as an act of war when I had added Lake Champlain to the list of Great Lakes in the charter of the National Sea Grant program.  This was expressly for the purpose of qualifying Lake Champlain research and education for Sea Grant funding.  Over the span of three weeks I engineered a face-saving fix for the Michigan folks that accomplished our goal.  Like the Battle of Valcour Island, we ended up winning the war.  And in the meantime, those Sea Grants have been flowing to Vermont and New York for important Lake Champlain research.

I’ve never made a secret of my love for this Lake, I am not alone among Vermonters whose lives are intricately interwoven with Lake Champlain.

Let me tell you part of this love story.  I first got to know and love this Lake as a child.  Later, I first met Marcelle on its shores, where her family had a summer camp.  She was 17, I was 19, and I was smitten.  And the lovely setting didn’t hurt, either.   Later, when I was a college student at St. Mike’s, neither of us had a car, or much money.  But some of the most glorious moments etched in my memory are the inexpensive dates that Marcelle and I spent on the ferry, crossing the Lake, at sunset.  Things change, but that marvelous journey hasn’t.  I highly recommend it.

And then in recent years Marcelle and I have had the privilege of diving with the incomparable Art Cohn to visit 19th Century shipwrecks on the Lake’s bottom.  What an experience it was to touch the hulls of those ancient ships. Or to see, up close, the reasons we need to contend with invasive species like zebra mussels. Our grandchildren have climbed all over the replica of one of those ships here at the museum.  And we can’t wait for the day when we can take them SCUBA diving to visit the real thing.

So for me, and for so many of us, the future of this wonderful Lake is personal.  Our children spent countless hours on this Lake with their cousins, aunts and uncles, and to my great delight, our grandchildren now enjoy it as much as we ever have.  I’ve watched many Burlington 3rd of July fireworks from Uncle Tony’s boat, I have joined fishing expeditions for lake trout in the deep water off Shelburne Point. 

This Summit has brought you together as a remarkable group of advocates, scientists and community leaders, a group with passion, experience, expertise, energy and very real personal stakes in the conclusions drawn from our discussions this week.  The outcome will move our work on behalf of not just the Lake, but on behalf of blue water challenges everywhere.  You are fishermen, farmers and resort owners; leaders of the banks and technology firms; local educators; directors of our nation’s foremost science centers; citizen watershed groups, internationally renowned biologists; and leaders of worldwide relief organizations. 

In short, you are exactly the right people to join in these important discussions.  And what important work we have to do.

In this Lake, we have world-class warm and cold water fisheries, drinking water for more than 200,000 people, spectacular scenery, and an economic engine that drives the region.  This is the crown jewel of our state's rich environmental treasures, and I want to protect this legacy for your family and mine.

  

I have dedicated a great deal of my work in the Senate to protecting Lake Champlain and water sources around the globe.  But if we are to ensure clean, safe water for generations to come we will need all hands on deck.  That is why you are here today.

Our future work should build on the solid foundations established over the past 40 years.  The Clean Water Act of 1972 required that we stop discharging raw waste into our lakes and streams, authorized funding for clean water infrastructure, and empowered the states to lead the way.

I worked hard to fulfill the federal funding obligation in Vermont and nationwide. As a result of a federal, state and local partnership, both public and private, less than five percent of the pollution entering the Lake Champlain comes from point source discharges, and we have a near limitless, inexpensive supply of clean drinking water for residents around the Lake.

As point source pollution declined, agricultural water quality concerns moved to the fore, and Lake-lovers like me worked to make USDA a full partner in protecting Lake Champlain, and water quality across the country.  In the 1996 Farm Bill we created the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or “EQIP,” to cost-share with farmers to install conservation structures and implement sustainable practices.  EQIP has provided tens of millions of dollars for conservation practices in the basin.  

Of course, it was clear by the late 1980s that more needed to be done.  Water quality had not recovered; sea lamprey were devastating salmon and trout; and New York, Quebec and Vermont were at odds over the problems facing our Great Lake. To achieve more coordination, the states established the Lake Champlain Management Conference and, with Senator Jeffords, I introduced the Lake Champlain Special Designation Act of 1991. This established the successful Lake Champlain Basin Program as a place where all stakeholders could work together on complex lake management problems.

We have brought the resources and expertise of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to bear on the sea lamprey problem.  Last year, after 25 years of work, for the first time, the sea lamprey wounding reductions were fully achieved and size records for trout and salmon caught in the Lake seem to be broken several times each year.  We brought in the Sea Grant program to support research.  We established the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership to make the Park Service a full partner in Lake conservation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and International Joint Commission now play key roles.

We have learned that the condition of the Lake is the result of hundreds of decisions that each of us makes every day and protecting our Great Lake requires an educated and engaged public.  Answering this challenge, a small group of visionaries began to gather at the old “Blue Box” naval reserve station that stood on this site, and the planned for a Citizen Science Center.  Through the vision, energy and hard work of this group a model public/private partnership was conceived to bring the community together.  Many generous partners stepped-up, and l0 years ago we opened ECHO at the Leahy Center.  ECHO now brings more than 100,000 people closer to the lake each year.

So what about the serious threats facing the Lake?  Despite our efforts in the last few decades, water quality is in decline in most Lake segments (and is truly dismal in some areas).  Toxic algae blooms are all too common, and our rivers run chocolate brown in the spring floods.  The devastating march of invasive species seems unstoppable, and in some areas the lakeshore is becoming a mass of shoulder-to-shoulder concrete abutments protecting large homes from high water.  Difficult spending decisions mean that past sources of federal funds are in decline, and the states are strapped for money.  There is little appetite among the public and the private sector for additional regulation and enforcement. 

What should we do?  How do we spring from solid foundations, pivot, and push forward for the restoration and protection of Lake Champlain?  Though Lake Champlain is right outside these walls, this Summit challenges us to consider these questions in a global context. 


Each week the world’s population grows by more than two times the population of Vermont.  Earlier this month, atmospheric CO2 concentrations passed the 400 parts per million threshold.

I have stood on these shores with Presidents, Governors, Premiers and Cabinet Secretaries.  But now is your time, you are among of the world’s leaders in these conversations, and we must carry our work on Lake Champlain to nearby waters, and to the furthest reaches of the globe. 

This week’s Summit will be what I hope is just a step in far reaching conversations to answer some of these difficult questions.

We need to bring new technologies, new economies, and new partnerships into play.  We need to consider whether it is time to tear apart and reassemble some of our carefully constructed institutions.  Or maybe we need to move beyond a dependence on these institutions. 

The history, the legacy and the promise of the “Great” Lake outside need sound stewardship, and the success of its future is in our hands.  Its shores provide the ideal location for the meaningful and deliberative discussions you will have over the next two days.  It is my great pleasure to welcome you to Vermont, and to the Leahy Center Environmental Summit.  My friends, we have some exciting and crucial work ahead of us over the next two days.  Let’s get to it.

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