Quebec university starting ‘observatory’ to watch Lake Memphremagog’s health

Lake Memphremagog
Lake Memphremagog in Newport. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

A Canadian university has launched a program to monitor Lake Memphremagog’s water quality and health.

The University of Sherbrooke announced the move to establish a “permanent observatory” on Wednesday, July 21, after years of concerns about the lake, which stretches from Newport north to Magon, Quebec, and provides drinking water for about 175,000 Canadians.

“We really want to (see) how the lake changes over time, and if it does change, what can we do about — is that an issue or is it not an issue?” said Céline Guéguen, a chemistry professor at the university who is leading the project.

The plan, she said, is to deploy at least six buoys across the lake within a year. Those floats will be rigged with monitoring equipment to track — in real time — contaminant levels and basic baselines such as oxygen levels and temperature, Guéguen said. 

Researchers will set up the first buoy in Magog Bay in the coming weeks, she said. Once more funding arrives from the provincial or federal governments, they’ll be able to roll out the rest.

A little over a month ago, Quebec legislators unanimously called on the provincial government to ask Vermont to permanently ban the discharge of leachate into the lake.

Officials and activists on both sides of the Canada border have talked for years about water quality in the lake, which flows north from Newport into Quebec.

Casella landfill
Area residents have taken to calling the Coventry landfill “Mount Casella.” Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Casella Waste Systems once sent leachate from its Coventry landfill to Newport’s sewage-treatment plant, located on a tributary of the lake. But in 2019, as part of an agreement in an Act 250 dispute, the company agreed to stop doing so until January 2024.

Calls to extend the moratorium were prompted by the discovery last fall of the emergent pollutant PFAS in a Canadian drinking water intake area connected to the lake. 

Activists believe the trace findings may have come from the landfill’s leachate. Experts say it takes two years for water to flow the entire 31-mile length of the lake, so activists believe it’s possible the PFAS found last fall could have been in leachate discharged in 2018 or 2019.

Guéguen cited concerns about contaminants, invasive species, phosphorus levels and the planned expansion of the Coventry landfill as threats to the lake that prompted the university to act. 

Right now, most of the data Canadians have about the lake’s health has been collected during the summer months, the professor said. The new program aims to fill in that knowledge gap with year-round research. 

“When the ice is formed, there is no data,” she said. “Nobody’s there to sample water and see what the level of, say, phosphorus in the lake is or other contaminants we don’t know. So that absolutely will help.”

The program will involve professors in the sciences, engineering, law and more, and students from the undergraduate to doctoral levels will be able to participate as part of their coursework. Project leaders also want to get citizens involved in the project, and send them sampling kits to collect water for analysis.

University representatives and Vermont officials have talked about the effort and about sharing data, too. State officials also want to obtain more data from the lake. 

The college program dovetails with PFAS testing that the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation has begun on Memphremagog — another source of cross-border collaboration.

The state is collecting water and fish tissue samples from three sites on the lake and seven of its tributaries, as well as testing discharge from the Newport sewer plant.

The first sampling trip occurred last week, and two more are planned for Aug. 17 and in September. 

“The state decided that we really needed to establish a baseline for PFAS levels in Lake Memphremagog,” said Oliver Pierson, who manages the Vermont department’s lakes and pond protection program. “We thought it would be ideal if … the Quebecois colleagues who are involved in monitoring Lake Memphremagog could do the same thing, so we could have a lakewide picture.”

Officials on both sides of the border plan to share and compare sampling data, Pierson said.

He added that researchers from the University of Sherbrooke have asked the state about setting up an automated water-monitoring buoy on the Vermont side of the lake, to match their efforts in Canadian waters. 

“We’re just starting that conversation,” Pierson said. “Perhaps we could find the funding and have complementary buoys to look at any differences in water quality.”

The first results from the state’s July PFAS sampling are expected by the middle of next month. And officials plan to share them at a community forum in Newport Aug. 24.

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