About Us‎ > ‎WUV Members‎ > ‎WUV Member Profiles‎ > ‎

Friends of Northern Lake Champlain

posted Feb 11, 2015, 9:11 AM by Lyn Munno   [ updated Sep 15, 2015, 10:47 AM ]

Algae blooms like this one inspired concerned citizens to form 
Friends of Missisquoi Bay, now Friends of Northern Lake Champlain.
The Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC) should be an inspiration to watershed groups dreaming of big impacts. A small group of citizens, concerned about blue-green algae blooms in Missisquoi Bay, first met in 2002 as a subcommittee of the Missisquoi River Basin Association. In the short 12 years since, the group has followed the interconnected water trail upstream and across adjoining sections of the lake in pursuit of water quality solutions, picking up hundreds of new advocates and volunteers along the way. Over the years, Friends of Missisquoi Bay became Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, and first part-time (Paul Madden) then finally full-time (Denise Smith) staff helped the group pursue an ever-expanding mission.

From the beginning, FNLC took a collaborative approach, joining lakefront camp owners with farmers to keep nutrients on the farm where they are needed and out of the waterways where they are not. Early farmer members went on to start their own organization, the Farmers Watershed Alliance, to reach out to their agricultural colleagues. More recently, the Friends have partnered with towns, regional and local planning boards, and environmental engineers on storm-water retention projects that address runoff from the more developed parts of the landscape.

Denise Smith, Executive Director, is involved with all aspects of FNLC
from field work to cornering administration officials.
Denise Smith, Director for the past two years, admits that when she first took the reins she didn’t fully appreciate the dynamic connection between our daily lives and our water resources. “I do not think I really knew how much we have changed the Lake’s ecosystem. When I became involved, I would hear stories about how the Bay Park in St. Albans used to attract 50,000 people in the summer. Today, you would be lucky to find 10 people on a beautiful summer day in July. So what’s happened, why are so few people noticing, and what are we going to do about it?”

Denise quickly got up-to-speed about the technicalities of water science and policy, from TMDLs to MS4s and 303d’s. More importantly, she applied her considerable public outreach and media skills to bring a larger more diverse public on-board as cheerleaders and supporters. Under her leadership, FNLC continues to host signature public events like the Tyler Place Event, Bike for the Lake, a summer Farm Walk and Tour, and a cookout, while also leaping into new territory with a public access TV program and a tour for legislators.

Photo Angela Evancie, Vermont Public Radio.

Governor Peter Shumlin’s third inaugural address praised Denise and FNLC, among many others, for their efforts to clean up Lake Champlain and other waters of the state. In his words...
“We're inspired and informed by the efforts of community groups like the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, the Lewis Creek Association, and the Franklin Watershed Committee for Lake Carmi. You also have the support of local leaders like my friend and former seatmate, David Deen of the Connecticut River Watershed, Denise Smith, and business owners like the Tylers of Tyler Place, and Bob Beach of the Basin Harbor Club."

Strip cropping is one of the field techniques that farmers partnering with FNLC are using 
to slow phosphorous run-off, while improving soil condition and crop yields and reducing
fertilizer bills.

Working in Franklin County, which vies with Addison County for greatest percentage of the landscape in farm fields, requires productive relationships with farmers, and Denise is proud of FNLC’s record. Her own introduction to farm partnerships was a bit shaky when she got off on the wrong foot with the owner of fields bordering a river where she collected water samples as an early FNLC volunteer. But today FNLC works closely with that same farmer – a testament to the good will, persistence and can-do attitude of both parties. In the agricultural arena, FNLC regularly partners with other WUV members - the Farmers Watershed Alliance (FWA), Missisquoi River Basin Association (MRBA), and Franklin Watershed Committee (FWC) - as well as with UVM Extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets.

FNLC’s positive collaborative approach is apparent in its efforts to understand nutrient loads from tile drains in crop fields and to find solutions that work for both farmers and the Lake. A project recently awarded a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service will monitor total and dissolved phosphorous concentrations in tile outlet water. Measurements above and below two different filtering systems will help FNLC assess how effectively these systems reduce phosphorous pollution.

Denise believes that on-the-ground demonstration projects and public outreach are equally important and must go hand-in-hand. “Sometimes I feel like the issues we are dealing with are insurmountable and that we will not be able to fix what we have broken. I feel like it is partly my job, as the Friends Director to learn about what is happening, reflect on it, and help others understand it by bringing awareness to it. Do I think that some rain barrels will counteract the millions of miles of roads we are building, the thousands of square feet of buildings we are building, or the hundreds of acres of soil we are dispersing and digging? No, not really, but maybe the rain barrels are a tool to help us start a conversation, to help people become aware, and to start to feel like we are part of the solution and not just the problem.” 

In essence, Friends of Northern Lake Champlain takes a pragmatic approach to stopping blue-green algae blooms in the northern lake, and will do whatever it takes to make progress. Core activities over the past few years follow three areas of focus:


  • Produce plans and maps that identify and prioritize municipal stormwater projects for 8 Franklin County municipalities plus 3 more in the works (see Enosburgh example);
An informal road-side survey during heavy spring rain identifies problem areas to investigate.

  • Install a terraced bioretention basin to treat stormwater at the RockTenn mill in Sheldon Springs (with Lake Champlain Basin Program funding);
Roger Thieken of RockTenn, Julie Moore of Stone Environmental, and 
Denise Smith of FNLC at the bioretention basin.

  • Work with the Village of Enosburg Falls to improve stormwater infrastructure, by designing and installing a tiered bio-retention system that treats 11 acres of impervious surface (with Stone Environmental and funded through the state's Ecosystem Restoration Program).
Installing a step-pool drain in Enosburg Falls.

  • Assess filter treatments for tile drain outlets in farm fields (funded by a Conservation Innovation Grant from NRCS);

Tile drains from agricultural fields may be a significant source of phosphorous runoff,
and work is underway to identify effective filtering techniques.

  • Identify and demonstrate best management practices for farms in Critical Source Areas within the Missisquoi River Watershed.
Brian Jerose explains use of filter socks at the Wagner Farm.
  • Help shape water quality efforts regionally and statewide by serving on key advisory groups, including the Citizens Advisory Council for Lake Champlain (VTCAC) , the Agriculture Innovations Committee convened by the Environmental Mediation Center, the steering committee for Watersheds United Vermont, the emerging Vermont Water Monitoring Council, and the Vermont Water Caucus;

FNLC Director Denise Smith explains water quality problems and solutions
 at a public meeting.


  • Conduct a fall bus tour for state legislators to explain water-quality friendly agronomic practices, riparian restoration projects, and stormwater projects (with co-sponsors MRBA, FWC, and FWA);
State legislators and others tour a retention pond on a FNLC-sponsored field tour.


  • Host the annual Tyler Place Event where decision-makers mingle with advocates and farmers to discuss issues, ideas, and strategies to address water quality problems.
Governor Shumlin congratulates Ted Tyler and Pixley Tyler Hill on winning
EPA’s Environmental Merit Award, at the Tyler Place in Fall 2014.
  • Sponsor public events that celebrate the lake, educate the public about the source of blue-green algae problems, and encourage participants to be part of the solution. The annual schedule includes the Tyler Place Event, Bike for the Lake, a Run and Walk for the Lake, a Clean Water Cookout, and two farmer meetings;
Bill Roberts, FNLC President Kent Henderson, Denise Smith, and Julie Moore
at the 2014 Run for the Lake.

FNLC’s public access TV program recorded at Health Hero Farm.

  • Conduct school programs, including Inquiry Based Education at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, assisting City School with rain garden and education grant, an erosion project at Hard’Ack and Aldis Hill, and visits from an Americorps volunteer who uses a watershed model to demonstrate to school groups how pollutants on the ground make their way into local waterways.
Children learn how water and pollutants move across the landscape
using a watershed model.

Friends of Northern Lake Champlain continues to evolve, responding to emerging needs and taking advantage of the resources at hand. In 2014, FNLC built on a history of close collaboration with the Missisquoi River Basin Association (MRBA) and Franklin Watershed Committee (FWC), by jointly sponsoring Americorps member Katy Lord. This position was made possible by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board Americorps program which links applicants with nonprofit housing and conservation partners throughout the state.

Denise believes that one group alone will not be able to solve our water quality problems, and that the better we work together and support each other, the better results we will see in our watersheds and ultimately in Lake Champlain. “We all live downstream from someone, and we are all part of a watershed. We need to collaborate in order to solve this issue and we need everyone to care and understand that how we live on the land affects our rivers, streams, and lake. The decision we all need to personally make for ourselves is: ‘Do I want to be part of the problem, or part of the solution?’”