David Emmons handed me a stack of photographs: snapshots of smiling boaters, water skiers, people diving off their docks, and fishing. Our boat was floating in the middle of Little Lake St. Catherine, a lobe off the southern end of the much larger and deeper Lake St. Catherine. With us was Wells resident Bob Short and Commissioner Emily Beodecker and Misha Cetner from the Department of Environmental Conservation, Rutland County Sen. Brian Collamore, and Wells Selectman Ron Bremmer had stayed on shore.
It was a bright autumn day, but a far cry from the scene in the photograph. Instead, we were creeping across a shallow weed-choked body of water with frequent stops to reverse the propeller to rid it of large wads of Eurasian watermilfoil. There are no other boats, no swimmers, no kayakers even. Some of the cottages bear “For Sale” signs, though no one is buying.
How did this happen? More important, and the reason for our boat ride, is what can we do about it? And that generates a long list of other questions. Who is “we?” What does “do something” mean? Do what? Who wades through the conflicting policies, jurisdictions and scientific evidence? What does success even look like?
There is also an immediate question at hand. Will the Lake St. Catherine Conservation Fund be allowed to restart the aeration systems which they already installed and operated for several years under existing permits from DEC?
But let us backup a bit.
In recent years, Lake Carmi dominated headlines and generated frantic activity after being designated a “lake in crisis” for cyanobacteria blooms and high levels of phosphorus. Little Lake St. Catherine is different; phosphorus levels are stable, water quality is good, there is no official crisis.
But, over the last decades, the lake has been filling in with organic muck, the residue of each previous year’s abundant milfoil and other plant growth. Much of the lake is now about 5 feet deep, though a metal probe will go down another 30 feet before hitting “hard bottom.” The same dock that people were diving from in the photographs now sits in about 18 inches of water.
The LSCCF has been harvesting milfoil mechanically to no avail. They have a permit in hand to dredge on the west side of the lake by the boat launch, but balk at both the cost and and environmental destruction. Mostly, they want to avoid the former standard practice of dumping poison into the water in the form of herbicides, EPA-approved or not.
Instead, they are pinning their hopes on the more benign, but less tested, system of aeration. With previous DEC permits and at their own expense, the LSCCF has installed and operated two sets of aerators in the lake; 12 on the east side since 2012 and 14 on the west since 2015. These aerators are essentially porous ceramic plates on the lake bed connected by hoses to an air compressor on shore. Air bubbles up through the diffusers mixing into the oxygen-starved waters at the lake bed, which promotes decomposition of the organic matter there. According to the LSCCF, they have recorded up to a foot of depth increase per year of operation around the aerators. The benefits they claim include not only depth increase — leading back toward “accustomed use” — but better fish habitat, potential reduction in milfoil growth and, ultimately, a healthier lake.
The Department of Environmental Conservation, however, disputes these claims and has not renewed the permit. The LSCCF proposes to not only continue and expand the aeration projects, but to add a digestive enzyme, essentially a compost starter, to speed decomposition at the lake bottom.
This is why we are floating on the lake: legislators, the administration, and local residents, and this is why we continue to meet in hopes of defining goals and concerns, bridging divides and looking for solutions.
The divide is real. On one side are those of us who cannot grasp how the state can approve, encourage and subsidize lake treatment consisting of applying poisons year after year to a complex biome, or alternately dredging up that biome and obliterating it. Especially when presented with the alternative of simply adding oxygen to the lake bed/water interface.
From the state’s cautious scientific perspective, “management” means the reduction of risk or unintended consequences. So, until aeration has been used in more than a few projects, until it has been studied, tested, peer reviewed, and published — it presents an unacceptable risk.
Yes, there are myriad questions of both science and policy, but it seems to me the real risk here is continuing the status quo, of doing the same-old same-old and hoping for a different outcome, and we are wasting valuable time.
Robin Chesnut-Tangerman is a state representative from Middletown Springs. He serves in the Energy and Technology Committee.