As human society continues to develop throughout the 21st century, ecosystems are increasingly affected. These effects can be seen in both small and large scales. On a global scale, increased carbon emissions continue to raise average temperatures on earth. From a more local perspective, whole ecosystems are transformed due to increased human development. In the Lake Champlain basin, drinking water is affected for a myriad of reasons, ranging from increases in agriculture to algae blooms in bodies of water (Lake Champlain Land Trust 2010). The further development of modern society is directly contingent upon the availability of clean water. Clean and healthy water is essential to general health and wellness, agriculture, tourism, and sustainability. Additionally, because of its importance, drinking water has high economic value. As the quality of water decreases, so does its value. As water quality continues to exist as a global issue, it is important to consider the economic costs and values of maintaining the quality of drinking water.
Assessing the provisioning ecosystem service of drinking water focuses primarily on the importance of clean drinking water for human consumption. Demonstrating principles of modern economics, as the availability of a certain resource becomes increasingly scarce, its demand and value increase. The Lake Champlain basin has emerged as the most densely populated area in Vermont, evolving from a previously uninhabited area. Lake Champlain supplies drinking water to nearly 190,000 people in the area. All but 2% of these people obtain their water through public water suppliers, all of which are monitored and operated by the state (Lake Champlain Basin Program 2010). In order to provide clean and potable drinking water to such a large population of people, millions of dollars are spent to withhold certain water quality standards. As the area continues to develop, costs and concerns associated with treating water from the lake have grown as external actors continue to degrade the essential provisioning service.
Lake Champlain is subject to contamination from multiple sources. Just as increases in chemical runoff create unhealthy algae blooms in drinking water, other contaminants such as suspended clay, silt, finely divided organic matter, and other microorganisms increase water turbidity levels. High levels of turbidity interfere with chlorination and can make water unsuitable for human consumption (Dearmont 1997). Although many toxins that are found in Lake Champlain do not pose immediate threats to human welfare, certain areas around the lake experience more contamination than others. The price of treatment per million gallons of contaminated water is a function of the amount of consumable water and the level of contamination. For areas of higher concern, such as Outer Mallets Bay, Inner Burlington Harbor, and Cumberland Bay, costs can be extremely high. In 2000, a $35 million dollar clean up took place in Cumberland Bay, removing PCB contaminated sediments and restoring wetlands and beaches (LCBP 2010). Other cost effective, grass-roots measures that have been made by local communities include the integration of rain barrels and rain gardens as productive ways of redirecting harmful storm water.
With agricultural development in the Lake Champlain Basin, non-point phosphorus runoff into the lake has resulted in phosphorus levels that are above state-mandated quality standards. According to the Lake Champlain Basin Agricultural Watersheds National Monitoring Program, about two thirds of all non-point loads of phosphorus into the lake can be directly attributed to local agriculture. Within the local ecosystem, phosphorus exists has a costly issue. Phosphorus, a chemical element heavily used in modern agriculture, promotes the growth of algae in lakes. The runoff of phosphorus into water supplies can lead to algae blooms that produce harmful toxins and impair water supplies and the biological community (Meals 2000). Because the lake provides drinking water to thousands of people, the state of Vermont has developed comprehensive plans to reduce levels of phosphorus in Lake Champlain.
Over the past decade, Vermont has developed numerous plans aimed at addressing the quality of drinking water provided by Lake Champlain. In 2002, the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) Plan was approved by the United States EPA as a method of reducing phosphorus levels in the lake. The TMDL, an initiative that includes an implementation plan, defines the maximum allowable phosphorus input to the lake (Meals 2000). A Proponent of the Governor’s Clean and Clear Action Plan, the TDML is an attempt to prevent pollution while restoring the Lake Champlain Basin, calling for a reduction of 80 metric tons of phosphorus into the lake per year. The costs pertaining to the TDML plan not only account for the upgrading of wastewater treatment plants, but also smaller-scale approaches to support efforts against erosion and better town planning within certain watersheds. By allocating necessary funds into many inefficient facets of state infrastructure, the five-year total state and federal funding totals over $85 million.
The costs of treating contaminated water continue to increase as phosphorus and other chemicals plague much of Lake Champlain. Although expensive, however, drinking water is an essential ecosystem service provided by the lake. High treatment costs discourage many, but it is a necessary step to take. Relating the Lake Champlain Basin to similar lake ecosystems in North America, it is helpful to examine Lake Winnipeg. Lake Winnipeg, a prominent lake nearly 10 times the size of Lake Champlain, continues to be choked by excessive algae growth caused by high phosphorus and nitrogen levels. In 2008, an ecosystem assessment of the lake revealed that billions of dollars could be gained by restoring natural environments. According to Vivek Voora and Henry David Venema (2008) of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, if pre-settlement landscape functions could be re-created, between $500 million and $3.1 billion could be generated from ecosystem services, while saving up to $1.4 billion in carbon offsets. This assessment can be viewed at http://www.iisd.org/pdf/2008/ecosystem_assessment_lake_wpg.pdf.
Drinking water proves to be an invaluable ecosystem service that is often taken for granted. Although costly treatment initiatives may be effective in providing potable water, the most economically efficient long-term plan is to adopt low-tech, cost effective practices along with sustainable farming to conserve the quality of drinking water provided by Lake Champlain.
Lake Champlain Basin Program. Drinking water.
Retrieved from http://www.lcbp.org/drinkwater.htm.
Lake Champlain Land Trust. (2004). Phosphorus and Lake Champlain . Retrieved 2010, from Lake Champlain Land Trust: http://www.lclt.org/Phosphorus.htm.
Voora, V, & Venema, H.D. (2008). An ecosystem services assessment of the Lake Winnipeg watershed. International Institute for Sustainable Development, Retrieved from http://www.iisd.org/pdf/2008/ecosystem_assessment_lake_wpg.pdf
Meals, Don. (2000). Lake Champlain Basin Agricultural Watersheds National monitoring program. http://www.anr.state.vt.us/dec//waterq/planning/docs/pl_319report.pdf
Dearmont, D., McCarl, B.A., & Tolman, D.A. (1997). Costs of water treatment due to diminished water quality: A case study in Texas. Retrieved from http://agecon2.tamu.edu/people/faculty/mccarl-bruce/papers/535.pdf.