University of Vermont

Economist Blooms As Filmmaker

Release Date: 12-01-2010

Author: Joshua E. Brown
Phone: 802-656-3039 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Bloom poster

The television premiere of Bloom will air on Mountain Lake PBS on Thursday, Dec. 2 at 10 p.m. The evening begins with an 8 p.m. round-table discussion with Vic Guadagno and Jon Erickson, hosted by Thom Hallock of the PBS program Mountain Lake Journal.

Jon Erickson is frustrated. "Lake Champlain is in bad shape," he says, "The algae blooms we see each year are a symptom of a lake receiving too much phosphorous, too much pollution."

"We've got good science; we already know how to solve this. But the public has this apathy," he says. "We're not making the tough choices needed to clean it up." So, this September, Erickson, the director of UVM's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, took a break from writing academic papers -- and decided to make a movie.

Three months later, on Nov. 29, more than 250 people fill every seat of the Palace Nine theater in South Burlington to watch the premiere of Bloom: The Plight of Lake Champlain, a 30-minute documentary film. Dozens of people are turned away and told they must wait for a second impromptu screening. Apparently, not everyone is apathetic about the lake.

Which is very pleasing to Erickson, who served as Bloom's executive producer, Victor Guadagno, the film's writer and director, Amy Seidl G '01 a lecturer in the Environmental Program, and Ben Falk '01 a landscape architect and experimental farmer.

To make Bloom, these four formed a non-profit company, Bright Blue EcoMedia. With support from Crea Lintilhac G' 77 and about $30,000 from the Lintilhac Foundation, Erickson and Guadagno brought on an editor and cameraman, secured the donated narration services of actor Chris Cooper (of Mission Impossible and Sea Biscuit fame), and spent nine frenzied days interviewing more than 30 lake experts and advocates across the state.

Then Guadagno and his editor hunkered down for a few more frenzied weeks to piece together footage, narration and music into a story of phosphorus run amok, political failure and possible healthier futures for Lake Champlain.

A gross failure

The film soars over the inky-black water of the lake, approaching a handsome shoreline. But soon it turns towards a bay filled with electric-green blobs.

"Those blue-green algae blooms, where certain embayments look like chunky pea soup, you know, that's outrageous," says one of the key interviewees in the film, Jim Tierney, a commissioner for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, "that's an indicator of a gross failure."

As the film proceeds, it shows three key causes of these algae blooms and the problems that come with them, like beach closings, fisheries damage and poor water quality. First: a montage of inadequate sewage treatment plants and aging pipes.

"The public and the state throws their hands up and say, 'we can't afford these multimillion-dollar fixes,' so you get storms and the system gets overwhelmed, and raw sewage gets dumped into our waterways," explains Erickson.

Second: footage of crowded muddy Holsteins in a sea of corn, symbols of poorly regulated, oversized dairy farms. "Our agriculture is out of scale with the lake," says Erickson, "too many cows, too much corn, too much crap going into the lake -- and zero political will to do anything about it."

And, finally, the film shows sprawling subdivisions, impervious pavement, overwhelmed waterways, and gushing culverts dumping untreated stormwater laced with fertilizer, dog waste and sediment directly into the lake. "It's a growing problem in our urbanizing state," Erickson says "we have almost no regional planning; it's all piecemeal in which each town has control and the state and county have little say."

Though the film makes several nods toward solutions -- including better regulation, enforcing existing law, regional land use planning, diversified smaller farms, riparian buffers, infrastructure investments and green building design -- "we needed to raise the flag first," says Guadagno. "We are so far from the solutions that we're mostly talking about keeping poop out of water."

A Public Meeting Blooms

After the film ends, Erickson invites the crowd to participate in a discussion. Holding a microphone, Erickson runs from aisle to aisle. "Most of you are probably too young to remember Phil Donahue," he says. Those old enough to remember the 1980's-era tabloid talk-show laugh. But the conversation Erickson is moderating is no laughing matter: the ill-health of Lake Champlain.

State officials, dairy farmers, homeowners, UVM students and activists stand to ask questions and debate the key claims of the film they have just watched.

"What can we do about this?" wonders Burlington resident Carolyn Bates.

Bill Howland from the Lake Champlain Basin Program stands and suggests that she, and everyone else, join their local watershed protection association.

Clark Hinsdale, a dairy farmer from Charlotte, says he enjoyed the film, but asks "why did the film attack the dairy industry?"

Abe Collins, an experimental farmer and one of the people featured in the film, says "we can have a clean lake and a dairy industry," but observes that there will need to be changes in how Vermont farms operate.

UVM watershed expert and professor Breck Bowden, stands to let people know that 30 percent of the land in Vermont is agricultural which sends 40 percent of the phosphorous to the lake, while only 6 percent is urban but it produces some 50 percent of the phosphorus pollution.

There is some discussion of Ben Falk's comment that phosphorous is a valuable resource to plants -- and that part of the solution is to bring together excess phosphorus from animals with plants that can use it as fertilizer.

Erickson is pleased with the civility of the conversation and the range of participants, "'We're ecstatic," he tells the crowd, "it's not very often that you get the advocates together with the agencies, with citizens, with farmers, with homeowners."

Guadagno agrees. "We elevated the conversation," he says the next day, "it was a film premiere but a public meeting resulted."

"The film isn't the finished product," says Erickson, "it's the conversation that the film generates."

The television premiere of Bloom will air on Mountain Lake PBS on Thursday, Dec. 2nd, at 10 p.m. The evening begins with an 8 p.m. round-table discussion with Vic Guadagno and Jon Erickson, hosted by Thom Hallock of the PBS program Mountain Lake Journal. Other viewings are planned for the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, and the Green Mountain Film Festival.

Additional information and copies of the DVD of Bloom are available from Jon Erickson, or (802) 656-2906.

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