Jessica Casey is taking that obligation seriously. She grew up on the shores of St. Albans Bay, part of Lake Champlain, where the water is so polluted with phosphorous from fertilizers that pet dogs have died from drinking it. The place she grew up picnicking, swimming, and watching her dad play baseball, is now so thick with agricultural runoff that it is unusable for people or wildlife.
Casey was recently awarded a four-year, full ride scholarship to Green Mountain College to study how to tackle this problem. The “First in Sustainability Scholarship Award” means she can find a way to restore the bay for her community and the plants and animals that live there.
“I’m the first one in my family to go to college, and this scholarship means I can take my life where I want and don’t have to worry starting out with a lot of debt,” Casey said. “I feel very strongly about fighting for the environment, that I need to take responsibility, and a Green Mountain College education will make that possible.”
Casey has taken responsibility for the environment from early on. A summer program in water quality has given her the basis to start understanding the problems facing St. Albans Bay. She also works part-time at the Otter Creek Wildlife Rescue, where she helps rehabilitate animals from across the state, including some that have suffered because of the polluted bay.
“At a time of heightened attention to the world’s sustainability challenges—environmental, economic and social—students like Jessica give us hope for the future.” said Robert (Bob) Allen, President, Green Mountain College. “Her essay conveys her deep-seated commitment to returning this natural resource to the community. She is exactly the kind of young leader the world needs: informed, enthused, and purposeful about creating a more sustainable world.”
In addition to studying at GMC, Casey will be playing soccer. And, she plans to take advantage of GMC’s membership in an Eco League of colleges that accept transfers from each other, including international options, so that she can spend part of her education at a European school.
If you’re a student who is passionate about saving our outdoors, Green Mountain College’s four-year scholarship award is now open for applications. Apply with your essay before February, 15, 2018 and start changing the world.
We hope that Jessica Casey’s words and actions will inspire generation to come. Here is her award-winning essay:
I’ve grown up watching the decay of the St. Albans Bay. Residents of St. Albans and surrounding towns have seen their beaches become increasingly contaminated with phosphorus, one of the three main nutrients found in fertilizer. The shallow and still waters typical of the bay pool the phosphorus, creating an unappealing, even dangerous environment for people, animals, and marine life. Phosphorus contamination is causing chaos in Lake Champlain, and in the community.
St. Albans Bay used to be a popular spot for picnicking and swimming, but the unpleasant smell and appearance of the shallow water now drives many residents away. There are still events hosted and people enjoying the bay, but not as many, and far fewer people swim there. The high levels of phosphorus cause people to exclude St. Albans Bay from their plans, and the water quality threatens many species dependent upon this habitat. I want to develop ways to bring the phosphorus levels down, and restore this lovely Bay to its natural health and beauty.
Phosphorus has been a growing problem throughout Lake Champlain. Many people are becoming frustrated with the State of Vermont for failing to do more to solve this problem. Last June, the EPA released the final Phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for twelve sections of Lake Champlain. TMDLs measures the maximum amount of one pollutant, in this case phosphorus, that a single body of water can handle within safe water quality standards. Wastewater Treatment facilities, erosion impacting unstable stream banks, runoff from developed land and roadways, and agricultural lands are all targets within these twelve sections of the lake. All are driving phosphorus levels up.
With high levels of phosphorus, come high levels of blue green algae. The toxins released from blue green algae are linked to minor problems such as skin irritation, but also major problems such as kidney and liver damage in both humans and animals. About 250,000 households draw their drinking water from Lake Champlain, as of 2012. Drinking water comes from farther out in the lake, beyond the shallow infested areas. However, summer homes and camps sometimes pull from the shallower areas of Lake Champlain. Marine life is also impacted. In 2011, there were multiple reports of crayfish crawling out of the water and clams dying by the hundreds on the shores of Missisquoi Bay.
Since 2011, conditions have improved somewhat, but not by large margins. I was last on the St. Albans Bay beach in August 2016. Once again, the smell was obnoxious, and the sand quality was also odd and unpleasant. This was once a place where I loved to watch my dad play baseball, and then all of us would enjoy a carefree swim in the water. But the excessive phosphorus has damaged this area almost beyond recognition. People no longer enjoy this as a center of family and community activities. It’s not even safe for pets now. Dogs have died because of the dangerous algae blooms in these waters. I want to restore this once beautiful spot, and return it to the community.
The Renewable Energy and Ecological Design program at Green Mountain College can help me develop the understanding and methods I need in order to formulate and implement plans to prevent phosphorus from continuing to pollute St. Albans Bay, and repair the damage already inflicted. My drive to learn about this issue, and help the environment recover, motivated me to participate in the Governor’s Institute of Vermont, in the field of Environmental Science and Technology. I want to continue to learn all I can, and Green Mountain College is the ideal next step for me.
A few existing programs attempt to address the problems of agricultural contamination of Vermont’s waterways. For instance, my former teacher, Larry Trombley, is involved in the CREPS program, which plants trees along the Missisquoi River to help absorb phosphorus from the agricultural land nearby. He planted 2,200 trees along the river side. This is one innovative solution, but many more are needed.
One idea I have been intrigued with involves finding ways to circulate water, and filter water using a type of mushroom that absorbs phosphorus. I have read about this, and want to research it further. Further education will help me gain the skills and wisdom to discover, refine, and implement effective solutions.
My love for the environment and desire to provide a safe area for wildlife and the human community drives me to tackle these problems. I want to revive St. Albans Bay as a place of beauty and recreation and return it to my community, which has provided me with many opportunities throughout my life. The education and experience I gain at Green Mountain College will help me fulfill these long and dearly held goals.
Melynda Harrison is contributing editor to Outdoor Families Magazine and writes for numerous publications including Big Sky Journal and Montana Parent. Her company YellowstoneTrips.com, specializing in Yellowstone travel. Currently, she is traveling through Europe with her family. Learn more at travelingmel.com, on YouTube, and Instagram.