Did you visit one of Vermont’s many lakes this summer?

Maybe you launched a boat, a canoe, kayak, or paddle board at one of the many fishing accesses around the state and were approached to have it inspected by a Greeter. You may have wondered who manages that program, and who works to make sure Vermont’s lakes and ponds are protected and remain clean and healthy.

Since nearly all of Vermont’s lakes and ponds are public waters held in trust by the State, you might think that it is the responsibility of the State. Vermont statute places this responsibility with the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR). Within the agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), in conjunction with other ANR departments, is charged with the responsibility of overseeing the State’s public waters.

However, with over 800 lakes and ponds in Vermont, it’s not possible for the relatively small DEC staff to do all that is necessary to preserve and protect the State’s public waters and their watersheds. For that reason, the state partners with various conservation, watershed, and lake groups to help with the work necessary to monitor and protect Vermont’s water resources.

So, who is doing the work on the ground (and in the lake) to protect Vermont’s waterbodies and waterways?

DEC staff provide training and guidance, oversight, technical assistance and standards, and management of permitting for projects. DEC staff scientists also conduct important research, and data collection and analysis. However, much of the “hands on” work necessary to protect the State’s public waters falls to local, mainly volunteer, lake and watershed associations that partner with the state agencies to make it possible for all Vermonters to enjoy our wonderful lakes and ponds.

Let’s look at some examples of the fantastic work being done by Vermont’s lake associations and preservation groups.

The Vermont Public Access Greeter Program is an integral component of the DEC’s overall plan to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS). Greeters inspect vessels and equipment entering and leaving lakes to ensure they are not carrying AIS on their boat, trailer, or equipment into a lake or transporting it to another waterbody. They also educate boaters about the dangers of AIS. A few greeter stations have hot water power washers and will wash boats to ensure no AIS is transported.

This is important work and essential to stopping the spread of AIS in the State’s public waters. Nearly all of the greeter programs on inland lakes are managed by volunteer lake associations. While the DEC provides training, it is the local lake associations that do the day-to-day management, staffing, and reporting, often in conjunction with a local municipality or Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCD).

Greeter Programs are only one element in the fight against AIS. Some 100 of the state’s lakes and ponds are already infested with some type of AIS. While the greeters are instrumental in preventing further spread, it is equally important that those lakes that are infested work to control and reduce the level of infestation to decrease the possibility of that infestation being carried to other lakes, and to restore a more balanced aquatic ecosystem. The most widespread invasive in our lakes is Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM), a biological pollutant that can spread quickly, damaging the aquatic habitat, and reducing water quality.

The work to control, reduce, and where possible, eradicate milfoil is complicated and costly. Regular plant surveys by professionals must be done to assess the level of infestation and to track the damage it causes to the aquatic environment. Control methods include hand pulling, diver assisted suction harvesting (DASH), bottom barriers, and herbicide. All but hand pulling (which is only effective for very small infestations) require state permits.

Applications for permits can be complex, particularly the application for a permit to use herbicide to control a milfoil infestation. That permit requires extensive documentation including a long-range lake management plan, a pesticide minimization plan, and proof that other methods have been used over several years and have failed to prevent the spread of the infestation. If permits are received (and it should be noted that use of herbicide is rare in Vermont lakes, with only 11 out of the 100 that are infested having received a permit), then the work must be funded, arranged, completed, assessed, and documented with reporting.

Who provides the funding for these vitally important AIS prevention and control programs?

If you answered the State, you’d be partially correct (but mostly incorrect). The State provides very little funding for the prevention and control of AIS. In 2023, the State’s Grant-In-Aid program only supplied $350k to all lakes and ponds seeking funding for their AIS projects. Those that received funds only received up to 25% of their total project cost. Thankfully, due in part to advocacy to the legislature by the Federation of Vermont Lakes and Ponds (FOVLAP) and NRCDs, a small amount of funding was added into the State budget which should result in increased funds being available for prevention and control programs in 2024 – but this is just a fraction of what is needed. Funding requests to the Grant-In-Aid program regularly top $1.2 million. It’s left to the volunteer lake associations to close the gap by raising funds through membership dues, donations, and by seeking funding from municipalities, and applying for additional grants to pay Greeter staff and fund their AIS control programs.

All of this may sound like more than enough for volunteer lake associations to do to protect and enhance the health of the State’s public waters, but what about water quality? Who works to maintain and improve water quality on Vermont’s lakes and ponds?

While DEC staff work tirelessly to fulfill their mission to “preserve, enhance, restore and conserve Vermont’s natural resources and protect human health for the benefit of this and future generations”, it is volunteer lake associations, watershed groups, and their local partners (like NRCDs) that are implementing water quality improvement projects at their lakes and ponds.

These groups, with the training and guidance of the DEC, are the organizations running numerous water quality improvement programs which include: water sampling (Vermont Lay Monitoring and the LaRosa Partnership Program), petitioning the State to be reclassified as Class A1 waterbodies (increasing their protection), and reducing phosphorus entering the lake by implementing stormwater runoff mitigation projects (Lake Wise, Stormwater Master Plans) and creating long-term plans for the preservation of the public waters in their watersheds (Lake Watershed Action Plans).

Lake associations and conservation groups also act as an early warning system for emerging issues in the State’s waterbodies.. Many groups organize and perform Vermont Invasive Patroller (VIP) paddles throughout the season, looking for new introductions of invasive species. If something is found, samples are sent to the DEC for analysis, and if it determined to be an invasive, the DEC will help to organize a team to – if caught early enough – help to eradicate the AIS before it becomes established. Lake associations have also been trained to identify cyanobacteria (harmful algae blooms) and regularly monitor and report lake conditions each week of the summer. These reports are found in the Vermont Cyanobacteria Tracker.

But wait, there’s more.

These volunteer groups also carry out extensive educational activities, helping to keep lake residents and lake users informed of best practices, helping lake property owners better develop lake friendly landscaping to protect shorelines from erosion, working with private road associations and local municipalities to address polluted runoff from entering lakes, providing free boating education classes, maintaining safety buoys and markers, and partnering with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies to place loon nesting rafts and lead collection tubes at boat launches.

And it’s not all work! Many lake associations also organize community events such as: 4th of July fireworks, boat parades, picnics, rewarding volunteer opportunities, annual meetings, educational events, ice out contests, and many more.

If you want to know more about all of these activities, along with gaining a better understanding of lake ecology, you will find that many lake associations maintain websites and Facebook pages loaded with valuable and interesting information about lakes, watersheds, and aquatic habitats. You can find links to many lake associations websites on the Federation’s Member Lake Associations page.

These associations and volunteer groups undertake so much work because they believe that we are all stewards of our natural resources, and as such, it is the responsibility of the entire community to protect, preserve, and enhance the health of the State’s public waters. Working in partnership with state agencies and other conservation organizations, these volunteers are indispensable to ensuring the health of the State’s waters for future generations.

If you love Vermont’s lakes, ponds, and waterways, take a minute to thank your local lake and watershed associations and preservation groups who volunteer countless hours of their time to preserve these precious natural resources for all of us.

In this season of giving, when it seems that everyone is asking for your support, think about the value of having clean lakes and ponds for all to enjoy and help protect your favorite lake or pond by supporting that lake association with a donation.

Without your support, these groups can’t continue this important work – and if they don’t do it, who will?