February 19, 2013

East Pond Association turns to small steps to combat algae blooms

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

The East Pond Association is undergoing a strategy shift in fighting algae blooms on the pond.

Over the past several years, the organization, which operates in Oakland and Smithfield, has slowly come to terms with the idea that reversing the conditions that caused the blooms in the first place will require thousands of small actions, rather than one big one.

“We’ve been looking for magic bullets, something that would just fix things,” said Rob Jones, 67, a former Smithfield selectman who has been president of the association for the past five years.

“Our association’s thrust now is to reverse the death by a thousand cuts that’s happened over the last few decades,” Jones said.

Algae blooms aren’t the only thing that threaten the health of a lake or pond, but the risk they pose is so severe that they get a lot of attention from environmental groups. 

East Pond is at particular risk of blooms because of a combination of high phosphorus levels and the relative sluggishness of the water, which is not moved along by an inlet. 

Some algae blooms become so large and long-lasting that they threaten the health of lake ecosystems and humans.

On East Pond, blooms were first documented in 1987, Jones said.

He said that throughout the 1990s, sporadic blooms of varying degrees of severity caused concern, particularly among waterfront property owners whose ability to use the pond for recreational activities was suddenly limited. 

“In late ’90s, there was a really nasty one that got people’s attention,” Jones said. “You could see globs of dead algae everywhere.” 

As the community began to take on the task of battling the blooms, the magic bullet approach was appealing, Jones said.

Since then, he said, local environmentalists have been disappointed to learn that that each proposed large project proved to have too high a price tag, with no guarantee of effectiveness.

The association considered using a treatment of alum, a chemical that would have locked up the phosphorous in the lake’s sediment, Jones said, but there was uncertainty about the outcome for a project with a price tag in the millions of dollars.

The association also ruled out using machines to aerate the pond’s water. When massive numbers of algae die and decay in the aftermath of a bloom, the water becomes so depleted of oxygen that entire fish populations suffocate and die.

When studied in closer detail, the aeration project had problems, too, according to Jones. 

“It would take the equivalent of all of the snow machines at Sugarloaf, and then some,” he said.

For five years, the state Department of Environmental Protection has set traps to remove large numbers of perch from the pond to combat the problem. The young perch eat zooplankton, which are an important check on the algae populations. 

The findings of a University of Maine study on the impact of the fish removal program will be discussed at a public meeting tentatively scheduled for 6:30 p.m.  Thursday, March 14, at the Maine Lakes Resource Center in Belgrade Lakes Village. The meeting also will feature a presentation by Linda Bacon, a lake biologist from the  Department of Environmental Protection, on the implications of climate change on Maine’s lakes.

Jones said it’s possible the fish removal program will be halted. 

“I’m looking forward to getting some indication in the March presentation on what the effects might be,” he said. From his perspective, it seems like the algae blooms have been shorter and less intense over the past five years, but it’s difficult to say for sure.

“In 2010, we had a fairly significant bloom,” he said. “In 2011, we had one of the clearest years ever.” 

(Continued on page 2)

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