A routine series of water quality meetings about the Lake Carmi watershed have become strained in recent months, leading a state official to request the presence of game wardens at the latest meeting Thursday night. The two wardens were in full uniform, which customarily includes a firearm.
The Lake Carmi Implementation Team meets monthly, bringing together state and local officials and interest groups in an effort to create a cleanup plan for a lake that's been overcome this year with blue-green algae blooms.
"The last three meetings, there's been a very spirited crowd," said Emily Boedecker, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. "In a situation where I and the team members were feeling challenged, I asked for the wardens to be present."
She denied that there had been any threats against her or anyone else; it was just that "we had not been able to get our important work done." Wardens will be present at future meetings, she said.
Judy McLaughlin, a member of the Lake Carmi Camper's Association who attended the meeting, said the presence of armed officers generated whispers among the crowd. She said the wardens told people they were there to provide "protection and enforce the agenda," and had orders to "cuff, remove and cite anyone who disrupted the meeting."
During a public comment period, McLaughlin said, Boedecker was quizzed about the wardens, and her response indicated that state officials felt threatened.
"What?" said McLaughlin, recalling the scene. "Threatened when talking to people about the most polluted lake in the state?"
Boedecker claimed that "it's not unusual" for wardens to attend such meetings.
Not so, said James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International and a Democratic candidate for governor, who was not present at the Carmi meeting. "I've been to hundreds of water-quality meetings, and I've never seen game wardens on hand," he said.
McLaughlin acknowledged that the September meeting had been "loud," with people often interrupting and talking over each other. But she said there's a great deal of frustration with the implementation team's lack of progress. That frustration was heightened by this summer's massive algae blooms, which severely limited recreational use and turned the surface of the lake into a slimy green mess.
"This time, people came to the meeting and listened to the 'canned' presentation," said McLaughlin. "I felt like we were back to square one, outlining basic points."
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 85 percent of the nutrients feeding the algae blooms is from agricultural sources. According to McLaughlin, the implementation team has done little to nothing about farm runoff in its two years of existence.
"Lake Carmi is in a bowl with agriculture all around it," said McLaughlin. "If agriculture is the problem, why do you come up here and talk about [other sources]?"
Boedecker said the team is following an orderly process. "Each member of the team has tasks to complete," she said. "The algae blooms are a terrible situation. They highlight the need to do everything we can."
But the supply of patience has pretty much dried up around the shores of Lake Carmi. Tensions are high, and trust in state officials is low.
McLaughlin and her neighbors refer to Lake Carmi as "ground zero" for Vermont's water pollution problems. Ehlers agrees with that assessment, and labels it a cause for great concern.
"If we can't clean up a 1,200-acre lake," he said, "how can we address Lake Champlain, which is 635 square miles?"