Cyanobacteria have taken center stage in many newscasts in the last couple of years, and have gotten more attention from the USEPA and state environmental agencies in the last 3 years or so than in the two decades before that. Cyanobacteria are not new; they are among the oldest organisms on the face of the earth, and are adapted to life under a wide range of conditions. But they do best in warm, freshwater with elevated phosphorus levels and a low ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus. Urbanization and agricultural use of land tends to create conditions that favor cyanobacteria, and the warmer temperatures related to climate change are fostering increases in blooms. All of this has been well documented in scientific literature with minimal bias; all political wrangling aside, we understand why cyanobacteria are becoming a more common problem and recognize the risks associated with these organisms.
But how is that risk assessed? New England states have a range of systems in place, but most fall short of addressing the issue to the extent necessary to allow appropriate response. The World Health Organization came up with thresholds of 20,000 and 100,000 cells/mL for low, moderate, and high risk, but cell counts are approximate and do not directly translate into toxin concentrations, which is where the risk really lies. Most states adopted a compromise concentration of 70,000 cells/mL, but it is certainly not true that 69,999 cells/mL is acceptable while 70,001 cells/mL represents extreme hazard. Thresholds create hard boundaries along a gradient with a lot of important variation. Some states now encourage toxin testing, but the ability to economically and rapidly test for the range of known toxins is very limited. Consequently, lakes get posted with warnings to avoid contact when cyanobacteria levels are elevated without actual confirmation of a hazard. Warnings do not legally prevent lake use, but rational people usually take those warnings seriously.
So what is the actual risk? This is a tough question. There is no doubt that some cyanobacteria produce toxins, including liver, nerve and skin toxins, but many species do not produce toxins. We know which species potentially produce toxins, and have identified the genes that allow toxin production, but because a species can produce toxins does not mean that it will. Many very dense blooms contain no toxins. Major die off of a bloom of toxin-producing cyanobacteria can result in elevated toxins in the water without a high cell concentration, although rarely for more than a few days. Risk is a matter of toxicity and exposure, and we don’t know enough about either to make definitive statements in many cases. Posting a lake for elevated cyanobacteria can help control exposure, but failure to follow up on toxicity leaves open questions and impairs our future ability to predict risk. We still have a lot of work to do to characterize cyanobacterial risk.
Many years ago when someone or a group felt that something about a lake was not right, they organized and changed it. Lake level was lowered, sediment was scraped, herbicides were applied, shorelines were bulkheaded, and so on. Many of these actions were appropriate, but many were not and most have impacts to other aspects of lake ecology that were not being considered or mitigated. In some cases the results were disastrous, not curing the targeted problem and making things worse in other ways. The dawn of ecological thinking and the incorporation of such thought into government resulted in many environmental laws, starting in the 1960s and peaking in the 1970s, with follow up ever since. Many environmental agencies were created, some completely new (the federal EPA) and others altered to redirect their mission (the federal USACE). State agencies underwent similar formation or transformation. The basic premise was that we needed to regulate how we treated the environment to avoid catastrophes while “fixing” perceived problems.
It is good that we have such agencies and the laws and regulations that guide them, but like most institutions over time, the mission is sometimes perverted or focus is lost. Incremental adjustments to regulations or changes in definitions create unforeseen consequences for legitimate activities. People use the system as a weapon instead of a tool. Agendas get created, processes become more complicated, and it becomes harder to manage. Lake management is suffering from just such a progression.
The fundamental problem with permitting systems is that they are managed by regulatory agencies with little or no obligation to solve a problem. Permits are not applied for because it is a fun thing to do; we request permits because we want to solve a problem. It is rare to have a regulatory staffer say “Oh, I see your problem. And I understand why you want to do what you have laid out in this application. There are a few issues we have to address, but let me see if I can find a way to make this work…” Instead, the regulator views his/her job as preventing environmental damage, not solving an existing environmental problem. If, after a frustrating process of submission, hearings, delays, and revisions, you give up trying to solve the problem, that is just as good as the agency issuing a denial. The permit system has been upheld. The potential risks from the proposed action have been averted. It doesn’t matter to the regulator that the problem has not been solved.
If someone is advancing a clearly detrimental request, say asking to fill a cove of a public lake full of endangered species to build a supermarket accessible by boat, all to make a few bucks, it is pretty easy to rule that out. But most requests have merit and raise management issues that need attention. What happens when the request is to control an invasive species known to reduce biodiversity, one that will impact some of the endangered species in that same lake, but the options for control may do some temporary harm to the lake? This is a balancing act, but one in which the actual problem may be given very limited consideration. After all, no state in New England (or anywhere for that matter) has a law saying that if an invasive species is found it must be addressed, but most states do have a law that says you can’t harm a protected species or damage wetlands, of which lakes are usually considered to be a category.
Any action that reduces the invasive species may be rejected under current regulatory systems if it is perceived as being harmful to some interest of an applicable law, such as taking individuals of an endangered species, and the burden of proof is on the applicant. The regulatory agency is under no obligation to properly justify its assumptions at that stage (you would have to go to court for that) and can require all sorts of studies of the applicant before rendering a final decision, which may still be unfavorable. And if the applicant gives up and the invasive species eliminates some endangered species in the lake? Apparently that is acceptable, as opposed to losing some of the endangered population in the process of eliminating and invasive species and saving the endangered species in the long run!
The problem is twofold: 1) Lack of big picture thinking by agency staffers, partly attributable to having limited background in aquatic ecology and lake management, and 2) Vesting authority in a regulatory process without any obligation to solve the problems that result in requests for permits. Both of these are solvable, but appear to require political intervention; scientific logic and economic sense are just not getting the job done these days.
Invasive species cost the USA over $120 billion annually, considering both management expenses and losses due to lack of management. The USA has experienced invasions by over 4000 plant species and 2300 animal species. About half of all pest species in the USA are exotic species, with nurseries, mail order, and the aquarium trade leading the way in new introductions. Just recently a shipment of an invasive snail not yet known in the USA was intercepted on its way to Hartford, CT. These are not trivial numbers.
We know about the impacts to agriculture and lake recreation, but often we get resistance to management from regulatory or private groups concerned over non-target impacts. This may be a valid concern in some cases, but doing nothing also has impacts on non-target species. About 30% of endangered species in the USA got on that list, at least in part, due to invasive species impacts. About 27 of 40 fish that have become extinct over the last century were eliminated by invasive species. After development, invasive species is the largest cause of loss of biodiversity. Doing anything represents risk to some component of an aquatic ecosystem, but so does doing nothing, and this needs to be recognized to get balanced decisions when considering possible management options.
Invasive species experts encourage managers to treat invasions like we do communicable diseases in medicine. Key steps include quarantine, assessment of damage, consideration of treatment options, and implementation of rapid response, rehabilitation, or maintenance. Prevention is important to avoid invasion in the first place or prevent re-infestation, but won’t reverse an invasion in progress.
Drinking water comes from the same places as all other water, it just tends to get treated differently to become potable supply. Treatment is required if specific source water conditions are not met. The risks from even natural sources of contamination (e.g., birds, wildlife, erosion) are substantial enough to necessitate treatment in most cases. Yet there is general recognition that drinking water sources need protection, even if that protection is not always provided. A study by the Nature Conservancy revealed that on average about 37% of the land in drinking water supply watersheds is protected from human–derived contamination sources. The other 63% is mostly in private ownership with varying degrees of development (8% on average) and agriculture (15% on average). There is geographic variation, with water supplies for west coast cities having a greater proportion of protected land than for eastern cities, and with northern New England having less developed lands but more agriculture than southern New England. Each case is to some extent unique, leading to differences in the level of treatment necessary.
About 85% of the population of the USA gets its water from public supplies, a percentage that has increased over decades from around 70%. About two thirds of that water is surface supply, a value that has been declining for years from a high of about three quarters. The remainder of the potable supply comes from wells, which have increased in use over the years. This is interesting in that public water supplies are fairly tightly controlled by law and regulation, and many wells are part of public supplies, but private well supplies experience minimal regulatory control. This suggests that an increasing portion of the population is less protected against water quality threats, although it is also true that water from wells is usually of acceptable quality.
About a decade ago 77% of surveyed people did not know where their drinking water came from. That is a scary statistic that suggests a low level of interest in this critical resource. Such lack of knowledge, and presumably concern, is very disappointing but is also consistent with the limited public support for water resource management. Education may not turn everyone into cooperating supporters of better land and water management, but it is a safe assumption that we won’t get more enlightened policy or greater support without such education.
As a society, we use water for drinking, washing, agriculture, industry, landscape watering, and carrying wastes. Overall, agriculture uses about two thirds of all the consumptive use water, but this varies quite a lot across the USA and is less in New England. Thermal cooling and power supply are also major uses of water, exceeding agriculture, but are generally non-consumptive (nearly all the water is put back into the system from which it came). Public supply water, used in residential, commercial and some industrial operations, accounts for about 11% of the total consumed; most of that is used for irrigating ornamental landscapes. Inside the house, water is used for drinking and cooking, but much more is used in bathtubs, washing machines, and toilets.
There is certainly variability over geographic areas, but most of the northern USA has a consumptive use of between 70,000 and 110,000 gallons per person per year. Arid southern areas can use as much as 200,000 gallons per person per day, but most of the difference is landscape watering. If a person used 5 gallons per day for drinking, cooking and washing, all uses where having very high water quality is important, that would equate to 1825 gallons per year, less than 2% of total consumptive use.
This raises some interesting questions. Should we be applying the same high level of treatment to meet stringent standards for the vast majority of water used in ways where that treatment is essentially wasted? The answer appears to be yes, but only because it all arrives at our homes in the same distribution system. Should we be pushing so hard for water conservation in the home when it represents such a small portion of water used? A yes answer is more philosophically satisfying than practical. If irrigation is the dominant use, why is so little effort expended on conservation of that use and so much attention paid to minor uses like bottled water? The answer may be that we have less apparent control, but there is technology to improve irrigation efficiency and we could do without some crops at some times of year to avoid all that water use in arid areas.
A truly comprehensive water policy at federal and state levels should demonstrate a clear understanding of how much water is used for what purpose and apply proper technology and restrictions to conserve a valued resource while recognizing economic limits. We should be pursuing multiple distribution systems that can carry water of the appropriate quality for corresponding uses. Landscape watering needs to be cut by a lot, or even eliminated. Irrigation water conservation should be a top priority. We have a long way to go to reach a sound water management position.
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.
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