Providing safe drinking water is a major industry in the USA, and that industry rises to many challenges. The vast majority of drinking water flowing out of faucets is extremely safe and reliable, despite the occasional catastrophes (Toledo OH and Flint MI receiving the most publicity in recent years). The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was promulgated and amended several times to legislate what consumers get, and has a lot of beneficial provisions. However, there can be unintended consequences.
For example, the SDWA calls for corrosion prevention measures to minimize leaching of lead and copper from distribution pipes. It would be better to replace those pipes, but it is true that some drinking water is acidic and some leaching could occur from any metal pipe, so adding substances that coat the pipes or minimize leaching makes sense. However, the cost of anti-corrosion additives is not negligible, and it turns out that the most common (read “least expensive”) anti-corrosion agent includes a lot of phosphate. The concentration of phosphorus in water sent to customers for potable consumption can be more than 300 ug/L. That level of phosphorus is not unhealthy for people, but algae blooms can be caused by as little as 20 ug/L. Algae are not going to bloom in dark distribution pipes, but once that water sees the light of day, growth is possible. Watered lawns may need less fertilizer as a result, but any runoff from such watering could wreak havoc on the receiving stream or lake. Flushing fire hydrants, an occasional operational need, can put a lot of phosphorus in the nearest water body.
We know that drinking water from a lake without treatment may be hazardous to our health, but how many of us know that the water we receive from most public supplies may be hazardous to the lake.
Those who remember comic Bob Newhart’s skits probably recall his famous rendition of Sir Walter Raleigh calling back to England on the not yet invented telephone and telling the queen that he had discovered tobacco. He tries to explain how it is used, and really struggles with making it sound attractive. This may have been an inspiration for many anti-tobacco campaigns, and we need a similar skit about how we treat water. Imagine trying to explain to some space traveler from afar that we spend money to protect our water supplies, expend extreme sums to treat water to make it drinkable, then put more of that water into toilets to convey wastes than we actually consume as potable water. It is hard to envision any explanation as being acceptable. Yet that is exactly what we do, despite existing alternatives, some of which are in use in other countries now. We really need some enlightened leadership to move our water management practices onto more sound ground.
The regulations governing the provision of drinking water are fairly extensive and strict. The water supplied to people for consumption is largely quite safe, despite the occasional hiccup like recent examples in Toledo Ohio and Flint Michigan. Those incidents should not be downplayed, but the public discussion should not focus on details, but rather look at the big picture. Source water protection is important, as is proper treatment, but what often gets forgotten is the distribution system. And that distribution system is grossly antiquated in much of the United States. By having just one intake source per dwelling, we have to receive only the best quality water. But if that distribution system has contaminants built into it, as with lead or copper pipes, we have to load the drinking water up with compounds that adjust the pH, coat the pipes and limit leaching of contaminants. Where the water sits for an extended time in the pipe, due to uneven demand, we have to make sure there is enough disinfectant present to keep bacteria from growing. There is a better solution.
If we had a new, smaller, pipe system to supply water for drinking, cooking and washing, the older pipe system could be used to supply less well treated water for toilet use and perhaps irrigation. There would be a cost to the extra infrastructure, but it could solve a lot of problems with current water quality and split water use in a way that would reduce treatment costs overall. Some places outside the USA now have dyed water coming into dwellings in one pipe for use in toilets, while drinking water is brought to taps separately. Recycling would mean less demand, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Utilities struggle to provide enough safe drinking water at times, especially during droughts, and we could ease that burden if we reduced the amount of high quality water that we literally flush down the toilet.
Found an odd plant in your lake? Is the water green when it used to be clear? Not catching as many fish as you used to? Just want to understand what is going on in your lake? These and many more common questions do not necessarily have easy answers. In all likelihood, there is someone around who can in fact answer any lake-related question you can come up with, but finding them can be a chore. Here are a few ideas of where to get help.
In Maine, the Department of Environmental Protection (ME DEP) is home to two groups of lake experts in the Lake Assessment Section and the Invasive Plant Section. The Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program (VLMP) works closely with ME DEP, maintains the Lake of Maine website, and certifies volunteers to collect water quality data and conduct shallow water plant surveys. Their program website contains a wealth of information, and their staff are very helpful. Maine also has an umbrella organization that provides assistance to lake associations and individuals across the state, the Maine Lakes Society (MLS). This network of professionals and interested laypeople has their finger on the pulse of proposed legislation pertinent to lakes and keeps members informed; anyone interested in Maine lakes should be a member of this group.
New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has a solid lakes staff, and the University of New Hampshire also has very talented people who can answer lake questions. Both run volunteer monitoring programs. The New Hampshire Lakes Association is well organized and is celebrating 25 years of service to the lakes community this year; New Hampshire lakes enthusiasts would be well advised to get involved with this group.
Massachusetts has a highly fragmented approach to lake assessment and management, so it is difficult to recommend one agency to contact. The Department of Environmental Protection handles permitting on a regional basis, but the Department of Conservation and Recreation has a Lakes and Ponds Program that does more outreach and actual lake management than the DEP. The Department of Fish and Game houses the fishery expertise in Massachusetts, as well as the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, which handles endangered species issues. The Massachusetts Congress of Lake and Pond Associations is the state level organization for lake enthusiasts, and just held a very successful annual conference. If you live in the western part of the commonwealth, the Lake and Pond Association- West is a subset of MA COLAP that you should join.
Connecticut has suffered the greatest losses of lake-related personnel in recent years; there is no identifiable lakes assistance program, but there are knowledgeable people in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) who can help. Lake water quality monitoring is conducting by theWater Monitoring and Assessment Program at DEEP. The Inland Fisheries Division conducts fish surveys in lakes and large rivers under the Warmwater Fish Monitoring Program. The Agriculture Experiment Station conducts aquatic plant surveys under the Invasive Aquatic Plant Survey Program. There is also a Connecticut Federation of Lakes that offers membership and educational programs to anyone interested in lakes in Connecticut.
Rhode Island has a Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) that does have personnel who work with lakes, but not a defined lakes program. Save The Lakes (STL), RI’s association of lakes groups, is actively campaigning for a new hire at the department whose focus would be freshwater systems. But until then RIDEM provides STL a list of state contacts for Lakes, ponds and rivers which is available on the STL website. In addition, the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch, celebrating 30 years of service in 2017 and hosting the NECNALMS conference at URI in early June, has a wealth of knowledge and monitoring data on RI’s lakes. Their website is a central clearinghouse of information for the state and region.
And do not forget about the various consulting firms in New England. While these are for-profit entities, they are for the most part very dedicated to the profession and the welfare of our lakes, and are almost always willing to talk with lake stakeholders about problems and options. Be mindful of how much time you take up, but do not hesitate to contact local firms for advice.
Finally, NECNALMS itself and the international North American Lake Management Society are educational resources with websites and members who can help. These are groups you should strongly consider joining, both for the programs offered and the networking opportunities they present. No one has all the answers, but collectively we can usually figure things out, and both NECNALMS and NALMS represent some of the best minds in the business and the most dedicated lake professionals out there.
So what exactly is an invasive species? There is no textbook answer, or at least not one that everyone agrees on. The most common professional definition is a species not indigenous to the area that does ecological and/or economic damage when it becomes established. It is not merely any species that cause a nuisance, as many native species (such as water lilies or coontail) can do reach nuisance densities and are quite native to New England. It is not a species that invades but maintains a low density or even goes unnoticed, not impairing any use of the lake. And there are such species to be sure. When professionals talk about aquatic invasive species, they are usually referring to plants or animals that arrive at a lake and become a dominant component of the aquatic community, negatively impacting other species or uses of the lake. Several non-indigenous species of Myriophyllum, the watermilfoil genus, qualify, but there are native milfoils as well, some of which are even on various state endangered species lists! The zebra mussel is a great example, not well established in many New England lakes, but causing both economic and ecological harm when it invades. The list of invasive species for each state varies a bit, but there are a few dozen species that just about everyone agrees we would be better off without.
What is it about invasive species that make them objectionable? For the most part, species termed invasive displace other species by some competitive advantage or lack of predators, and become abundant enough to influence lake features that affect lake uses. Dense plant growths can include native species, but among the worst conditions are associated with Eurasian or variable leaf watermifoil, fanwort, and hydrilla, all species that came to New England in the last century and have not been well integrated into aquatic communities. It is possible that at some point balance will be achieved, and some people or even agencies make the argument that we don’t need to act; if we wait them out, the invaders will become part of functioning aquatic systems. This might be true in some cases, but given the track record, it does not seem responsible to wait that long to test the theory.
Invasive animal species, like the zebra mussel or spiny water flea, alter the flow of energy in a lake and affect the aquatic food web. Aggressive snakehead fish similarly impact the food web, but from the top down via predation. Just how much damage is done can vary greatly depending on the condition of the infested lake. Lakes with very healthy native plant communities that cover the bottom in the zone where light is adequate tend to resist colonization by invasive plants, although it is reasonable to expect eventual dominance by the invader. Lakes with no hard substrate or very little calcium in the water column are not likely to support dense populations of zebra mussels, but one can expect that all native freshwater clam shells will be colonized and those species are likely to be eliminated. There can even be some upside, as with clearer water from the filtering effect of zebra mussels, but this tends to favor buoyant cyanobacteria, so ultimately zebra mussels may promote objectionable algae blooms.
Invasive species are analogous to infectious diseases. Not every disease will kill you, but none are considered pleasant or desirable. Living with a disease is highly personal experience, but acting as a vector for that disease is irresponsible. Having an invasive species in a lake and deciding not to act to control it may be a valid position in some circumstances, but the potential impacts on other lakes in the area should be considered in making management decisions. This is a complicated area of judicial, regulatory and scientific interaction, and blanket statements that universally apply are hard to come by.
The cost of impacts vs. the cost of control is also a difficult topic. Actually putting dollar figures on impacts is not always easy, and even accurate estimation of control costs can be challenging. Ideally, eradication is the goal, but that may not be feasible in all cases. There is a whole school of thought on invasion ecology that considers the potential for control along a timeline of species establishment and impact. Often invasive species are not noticed or managed until they have reached the point on the curve where eradication is very expensive. Clearly prevention is the most cost-effective approach to invasive species management, and rapid response is the clear second choice for action, but both of these are given way less attention than they deserve in our monitoring and regulatory systems at the state level. Maintenance and restoration are the more expensive alternatives that apply once an invader has become established, and the cost can indeed by staggering. Millions of dollars are spent annually in New England alone to manage invasive species, rarely with eradication as a result or even a goal.
There is a very real need to enable citizens with an interest in lakes to recognize invasive species and to empower groups to take early action. In Massachusetts, the process and timeline for getting a permit for a rapid response program are the same as for addressing a longstanding infestation or addressing nuisance native species. We have no mandate to control invasive species, but we have laws and regulations that protect many species; if the control of an invasive species conflicts even a little with protection of an endangered species, the chances of getting a permit to control the invader are very slim. A more holistic approach is needed, but until we reach that stage of enlightenment, it is important for lake monitors to recognize invasive species and bring them to the attention of appropriate state agencies.
Laurel Lake, just off Rt 7 in Lee and Lenox, MA, is the only lake in MA infested with zebra mussels…so far! Zebra mussels got into the lake sometime around 2008 and were discovered in 2009. There has been a lot of discussion over the last decade, but only a small drawdown and boat washing station have been established in response to this problem. Zebra mussel larvae, called veligers, have been able to flow out of the lake and into the Housatonic River each summer, and now at least two reservoirs in Connecticut have become infested. The Laurel Lake Preservation Association (LLPA) has been working with the Towns of Lee and Lenox to fund studies of the lake and possible solutions; a detailed summary of work done from 2010 through 2016 by Water Resource Services Inc. was recently released. Now the LLPA is seeking help at the state and federal level, working to get all agencies with responsibility for or interest in the lake to cooperate on a solution before other lakes in the area become infected. Stay tuned for developments.
Aluminum compounds are coagulants used in water and wastewater treatment to settle solids and pull dissolved solids out of solution. In water treatment these compounds convert impurities into particles that can be settled or filtered. In wastewater treatment aluminum does the same thing, but is also noted for its ability to find phosphorus and lower the fertility of effluents. Over 40 years ago it was hypothesized that aluminum could do in lakes what it did in treatment facilities and might be especially useful for inactivating phosphorus in sediment that was being recycled to create what we now call an “internal load”. While a lot has been learned in the intervening years that makes such treatments more effective, even the earliest treatments provided enough benefits to make continued use worthwhile. Although aluminum treatments will clear the water of most algae, it is not an algaecide, defined simply by the root words as something that kills algae.
While the majority of regulatory agencies in New England appear to understand why and how aluminum is used in lake management, there seems to be some confusion in a few places about aluminum use. The State of New York created a regulatory definition of algaecide that expands coverage to any additive that prevents algae from growing. This would include aluminum, which limits phosphorus availability, and is not on the federal list of registered algaecides, since the EPA does not consider it to be one. Consequently, aluminum treatment cannot be permitted in New York. Of course, by this logic algaecides would also include oxygen if added to keep phosphorus bound to iron and unavailable to algae, and to air used to circulate water, thereby disrupting the growth of many buoyant cyanobacteria. It would also include water used to dilute phosphorus concentrations or even flush a small lake. Arguments about other additives being “natural” simply do not hold water. New England states have generally not bought into this faulty logic, but apparently the Connecticut Department of Health has applied the New York definition of an algaecide in some cases and has not approved aluminum treatments in drinking water supplies, despite approval by CT DEEP for such treatments in recreational lakes.
There is no doubt that control of phosphorus before it enters a lake is preferable where feasible, but there are very real limits on our ability to do that, and where phosphorus has accumulated in a lake, it has to be inactivated to rehabilitate the lake. It is much like fixing a boat that has sprung a leak; the leak needs to be patched, but that won’t get rid of the water that has leaked in. Aluminum treatments offer control of internal loading, and can also be used to treat inflows where watershed management is not yet up to the task or to reduce phosphorus availability in the water column after significant loading events. We have learned over the years how to prevent toxicity, making it a relatively safe technique. Creating regulatory restrictions based on faulty logic or incomplete understanding of the technique hinders lake management in a time when we need every viable technique we can get.
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