AmeriCorps Week: Stories of Service
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Rocks in a Ditch
by Katherine Lord
This past fall, I spent quite a bit of time in Franklin, Vermont, a small town in the northwestern part of the state. Franklin is home to Lake Carmi, the fourth largest natural lake in the state. With my AmeriCorps term beginning in the fall season, I was lucky enough to witness Carmi and its surrounding landscape undergo the revered autumn transformation. As the green of summer gave way to the pallet of colors for which New England is famous, I spent hours familiarizing myself with the rural landscape that would be the focus of my work for the year to come. As you drive from Franklin’s quiet center toward the lake, the pastures are freckled with holsteins and gambrel-roofed barns. Lake Carmi sits within this bucolic panorama as if posing for a postcard.
Despite the stunning landscape, Lake Carmi garners attention for another reason. It is one of only two lakes in the state that are subject to a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) analysis. This is a regulation created by the EPA that identifies the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards. The TMDL is like a prescription for a sick patient. Lake Carmi is indeed, sick, polluted with extremely high levels of phosphorus, mobilized in runoff from its agriculture-dominated watershed. While all plants require nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen to survive, excessive amounts of nutrients in the water can offset the balance of the aquatic ecosystem. A history of toxic blue-green algae blooms, a result of this nutrient overloading, has plagued the lake for years. These putrid-smelling blooms form a green scum over the water, inhibiting recreational use of the lake for months at a time. Water samples taken every two weeks throughout the spring, summer, and fall reveal that the lake and its tributaries are far from reaching the healthy phosphorus levels called for by the TMDL.
It is in response to this that I find myself, along with fellow VHCB AmeriCorps member, Sarah L’Homme, and my supervisor at Franklin Watershed Committee, Alisha Sawyer, putting rocks in a ditch. With our gloved hands, we struggle to grasp a few oddly shaped pieces of limestone rip-rap at a time and place them in the two-foot wide channel, which runs from a culvert under the main road to the lake, passing between two seasonal camps on its way. The project takes all of three hours to complete, and on this mild, sunny day, is enjoyable work. Meanwhile, an independent filmmaker captures our laboring on film, for use in a documentary on water quality in Franklin County.
‘Why rocks in a ditch?’ you might ask. Local camp owners have complained of dirty, sediment-laden water flowing through this ditch on a fast-track to the lake. By placing rip-rap in the channel, we are creating physical barriers that slow the water on its trajectory, allowing it to seep into the earth before reaching the lake with nutrients and sediment pollution in tow. Weeks later, Alisha and I return to the site and observe water pooled between rocks, evidence that this simple method is working.
I wanted to share this story because I feel that it conveys an important lesson about problem solving and personal responsibility. Lake Carmi’s pollution problem is severe, and the damage will likely take decades to reverse. Like many problems facing the modern world, the solution seems out of reach. It can often be difficult to justify the value in small, isolated measures when the challenges we face are so vast, complex, and often deeply rooted in sensitive social, economic, or political issues.
At Lake Carmi, public response to the degradation of the once-clear lake has been one of indignation and finger-pointing. Unfortunately, efforts to place blame within the community often surpass efforts made to remediate the problem. I feel lucky to be working with an organization that is working to defuse this culture of blame, and replace it with one of personal responsibility. Although placing rocks in a ditch cannot solve the whole problem, it was an opportunity, and a valuable one, to fulfill our obligations as stewards of the natural world. Each and everyone of us has an opportunity such as this every day. When we capitalize on these opportunities and take personal responsibility for the problems we see around us, we will see great change in the world. It may be a cliche, but it’s true.
Story originally posted December 15, 2014