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Local Doc Takes on Lake Pollution - and Gets Some Flack

State of the Arts

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The Welden Theatre in St. Albans usually shows Hollywood fare. But on Monday night, it hosted a lively debate inspired by a screening of the local documentary Bloom: The Plight of Lake Champlain.

“It was packed ... about 150 people,” says Victor Guadagno, who wrote, produced and directed the film. He says he noticed “a few legislative reps” in the audience, along with municipal representatives and lakeside homeowners.

Perhaps most vocal, though, were the farmers. The “bloom” of the documentary’s title is the toxic blue-green algae, caused by phosphorus, that closes lake beaches and kills pets. The film pinpoints agricultural fertilizer runoff as one major source of that pollution. The other two are urban stormwater and aging wastewater treatment plants.

Some of the film’s interviewees suggest that politicians aren’t addressing lake pollution because agriculture has sacred-cow status — so to speak — in Vermont. “Listen to any politician who’s running for office,” says Dennis Hill, assistant principal of Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans. “They will talk about saving the farms ... They are playing on the myth of dairy in Vermont.” Another interviewee says traditional ag isn’t contributing much to the state’s economy.

Naturally, farmers at the screening had something to say about that. “I took an earful from people,” says Guadagno. “[Farmers] take it personally. They feel like they’re criticizing their lifestyle.” But overall, he says, the debate was balanced and had a “very civilized,” town-meeting feel.

Among the attendees was Roger Rainville, chair of the Farmer’s Watershed Alliance, whose members say ag is already working to clean up its act. Rainville appears in the film, too, presenting a farmer’s perspective: “It’s pretty hard to get motivated to start looking at a potential water-quality issue,” he says, “when you can’t even feed your kids.”

It’s no surprise, says Guadagno, that the agriculture section of the 28-minute film has provoked the most controversy: “No one has a personal connection to stormwater or to a wastewater-treatment system.”

But Guadagno and executive producer Jon D. Erickson, a University of Vermont professor and managing director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, say they didn’t make Bloom to point a finger at farmers. It’s the first in a planned four-episode series on the lake problem, with the next three focusing on solutions.

Guadagno creates programs for Vermont Public Television, where he won a regional Emmy for the series “Emerging Science.” In the course of his work, he met ecology professors Erickson and Amy Seidel. Together with Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design, they formed the nonprofit production company Bright Blue EcoMedia to “tell stories about sustainable solutions and have them fact based in science,” says Guadagno. Then they approached the Shelburne-based Lintilhac Foundation for funding.

The idea of focusing on lake pollution came from the foundation, says Guadagno. But Erickson says the topic was already “near and dear to my heart. Since my time in Vermont, it just seems like this is an issue that’s been highly politicized, and we haven’t got a whole lot of traction on it.”

With a $35,000 budget, says Erickson, the team shot Bloom over three months starting last September. Veteran character actor Chris Cooper, who won an Oscar for his role in Adaptation, did the voiceover narration.

The film alternates between talking-head interviews and deceptively pretty shots of the autumnal lake. Some, taken from the air, reveal the bright-green “blooms” of algae spreading like some alien fungus.

To comply with the Clean Water Act, Vermont must set a target for the “total maximum daily load” of phosphorus the lake can sustain. In the film, Julie Moore, director of the Agency of Natural Resources’ Center for Clean and Clear, notes how far we are from hitting that target.

The Environmental Protection Agency agrees. On January 24, the EPA announced that it is withdrawing its approval of Vermont’s 2002 water-quality plan for Lake Champlain. “EPA intends to work closely and collaboratively with the State to develop a new plan for reductions in phosphorus from sources in Vermont,” the feds’ statement reads.

What will that “new plan” entail? Guadagno doesn’t know. But, he thinks, large-scale changes in agricultural thinking and practice would help: “We learned a long time ago that monoculture doesn’t work.” Urban dwellers, he says, can’t let themselves off the hook for lake pollution, given the role of stormwater: “You can be part of the solution by creating a rain garden, creating a backyard garden.”

Both filmmakers emphasize their interest in finding solutions — Erickson says he hopes to couple the next, more detailed, episode about agricultural runoff with a design charrette. The goal, he says, is to “see if we can figure out where there is some general consensus about Vermont principles and the future of agriculture in Vermont, and where there is significant disagreement. ... We didn’t hear a whole bunch about the lake during the [2010] campaign, so we’re hoping this film can put the lake back on the agenda.”

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