July 15, 2010

Weeding out trouble

Conditions in Maine have created 'a jackpot year' for disruptive aquatic plants

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Clouds of green algae and stringy, gooey gelatinous masses are showing up in ponds and lakes across Maine.

click image to enlarge

Kelly Baldwin serves as an inspector for the Lakes Environmental Association, monitoring boats for invasive aquatic plants as they pass through the Songo Locks in Naples. She’s holding milfoil, an unwanted weed that has been pushing into boating lanes in the Songo River and lower Sebago Lake because of ideal growing conditions.�

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Inspector Kelly Baldwin checks a boat for milfoil Tuesday as it passes through the Songo Locks in Naples. Inspectors will urge boaters to stay out of the Songo River to prevent milfoil from re-entering Brandy Pond and waters to the north.

Early spring weather, a warm summer and lots of sunshine are to blame for a rise in reports of weeds, algae and other freshwater plant life near beaches and boating spots, say state officials and environmental groups.

Although the abundant aquatic plant life poses no apparent threat to the health of humans, experts are warning people not to swim in algae or allow their pets to drink water where algae is flourishing.

In New Hampshire and other New England states, some dogs' deaths have been linked to drinking water with high levels of algae toxin. So far, such high levels have not been detected in Maine, said Roy Bouchard, a biologist with the Department of Environmental Protection's lake assessment program.

Scott Williams, a biologist who is executive director of the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program in Auburn, said calls about algae have increased to his organization, which has trained volunteer lake monitors for nearly 40 years.

He said most of the reports don't qualify as true algae blooms -- in which one species of algae turns an entire body of water bright green -- but they are a sign that conditions have been ideal for algae growth this year.

Ice melted from ponds and lakes weeks earlier than usual, and this summer's warm days and sunlight have created good growing conditions in Maine's 6,000-plus bodies of fresh water.

"The other factor to consider is, for the last two summers we had an awful lot of rain that carried a lot of stormwater runoff and nutrients into the water," said Williams.

Peter Lowell, executive director of the Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton, said the weather also has been ideal for variable leaf milfoil, an invasive aquatic weed that has been found in about 30 lakes and ponds.

"There is an enormous amount of plant growth and plant fragments along the lower Songo River, from the locks to lower Sebago (Lake)," Lowell said.

He said beds of milfoil are growing into boating lanes. He met Monday with officials from state parks and the Portland Water District, which taps Sebago Lake for drinking water, to seek solutions.

Inspectors at the locks are being doubled and their time is being extended, he said. The inspectors will urge boaters to stay out of the Songo River, to prevent milfoil from re-entering Brandy Pond and waters to the north, where more than $250,000 has been spent to eradicate the weed.

"Anecdotally, this is turning into one of the worst summers in memory," Lowell said.

Dan Buckley, an aquatic ecologist and chairman of the Division of Natural Science at the University of Maine in Farmington, said there is little doubt that Maine's lakes and ponds are warmer than normal this year.

Buckley, who is in the midst of a multiyear study of water temperatures in about 30 lakes and ponds across the state, said he won't know just how warm they are until the data is collected this fall.

He said it's too soon to tell whether the algae growth this summer signals a long-term deterioration in water quality, but "it should be taken as a warning sign."

On Wednesday, after a night of heavy rain, the water temperature at the stream-fed Damariscotta Lake State Park in Jefferson was about 78, said a lifeguard, Lauren Grotton.

Last week, the water reached a bath-like 84 degrees, which was warmer than normal, Grotton said. Bathers weren't complaining. "They love it warm," she said.

Ray Smith, president of the Bauneg Beg Pond Association, which looks out for the 200-acre man-made pond in Sanford and North Berwick, said he has heard many complaints about weeds in places where no one has ever reported them before.

"This year it is like a jackpot year," he said.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: bquimby@pressherald.com

 

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