PLATTSBURGH — A new film focusing on the health of Lake Champlain offers a grim look at what the film's producers call a "lake in decline."
"Bloom, The Plight of Lake Champlain" examines several factors that may be responsible for increased levels of blue-green algae throughout the lake. Blue-green algae is a potentially toxic plant that has attracted growing concern over the past few summers.
"There's been a lot of news coverage of algae blooms, but the news has been more about the blooms themselves and less about the causes," said Jon Erickson, the film's executive producer.
Erickson, a professor and managing director for the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, hopes the film can become an "entryway for discussion about the root causes" of increased algae growth in the lake.
"There has been a sense of frustration that we continue to spend a lot of money on lake-cleanup efforts that seem to be doing what's politically feasible and not what's economically or ecologically feasible."
Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper narrates the film. Cooper has appeared in such films as "American Beauty," "The Bourne Identity" and "Me, Myself and Irene."
His narration is woven around quotes from several key players in Lake Champlain management, including University of Vermont professor Mary Watzin, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Justin Johnson and Eric Smeltzer from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
"We were also able to talk to various people on the front lines," Erickson said of interviews with citizens involved in grassroots organizations that follow lake-related activities.
"It was important for us to get the voice of the everyday man and woman who are impacted by this every day of their lives." But the true star is Lake Champlain itself, with video clips of a pristine lake overshadowed by dramatic glimpses of algae blooms dotting the water's surface.
The film points a direct finger at agriculture, citing outdated farming techniques and a lack of support to assist farmers in utilizing eco-friendly farming practices.
"We took a hard look at dairy," Erickson said. "Dairy seems to be this thing that has become a political football.
"It's something our regulatory bodies don't want to touch, but it is an area where tough decisions need to be made to transform the dairy industry into something that is both economically and ecologically viable." Phosphorus, a nutrient that promotes plant growth, is often found in elevated levels in agricultural runoff. Decades of lake-related management activities have not helped to reduce phosphorus levels across the lake.
FOCUS ON VERMONT
Victor Guadagno, the film's writer, director and producer, interviewed around 30 people over a six-day period, almost exclusively in Vermont.
"Vermont has been the larger part of the problem," Erickson said. "They have the larger ag systems and the larger urban areas, but there has also been a lot of frustration from both New York and Quebec that Vermont isn't doing its share."
HOPING FOR CHANGE
Guadagno, who has won an Emmy for recent work he's done with Vermont Public Television, believes the film will promote productive change in the Lake Champlain basin.
"It's my goal to tell stories that will lead to the restoration of ecological systems and environmental improvement.
"Working in Vermont has given me an opportunity to work with a non-profit film company (Bright Blue Ecomedia) to tell stories that lead to positive solutions." Although "Bloom" spends most of its time looking at problems facing Lake Champlain, both Erickson and Guadagno hope to continue the series with more solution-based information in the future.
The film premiered Monday night in Burlington before a packed house. A panel discussion followed that gave the filmmakers a sense that they had met their goals.
"This is the kind of film that is meant to raise discussion," Guadagno said. "And that's exactly what happened, discussion: heated, yet civilized. That's how progress is made."