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.” 

Whether the fish removal program continues or not, the association is one of several environmental groups in the state that are increasingly focused on preventing the introduction of phosphorus into the water in the first place.

Phosphorus is a natural element that plays a vital role in supporting plant life everywhere, including in ponds and lakes. 

While a little phosphorus, which occurs naturally, is essential for plant nutrition and growth, too much causes that growth to spiral out of control, particularly in the case of the algae plants that make up the blooms.  

Phosphorus is found in high concentrations in fertilizers, pet waste and soil. When water runs through a landowner’s property, it can pick up large amounts of phosphorus and carry it directly into the pond.

Jones said property owners can do a lot to prevent phosphorus from entering the lake. And so the association has gone from trying to treat the pond itself to getting property owners to take preventive measures, which can include picking up pet waste or using vegetative buffers and mulch to slow runoff.

Jones said there is a wide range of knowledge and cooperation among those people who affect the lake’s health.

“Some people still have lawns and mow them right down to the lake, or have driveways that shoot right down to the lake,” he said. “Others have never cleared or reallowed native plants to grow at the shoreline.”

In 2004, the Department of Environmental Protection created LakeSmart, a voluntary program that recognizes property owners who meet a certain set of property management standards that improve pond and lake health. In November, LakeSmart was transferred to the Maine Congress of Lake Associations, which plans to expand and improve the program.

Jones said the East Pond Association will continue to advocate for LakeSmart and other programs to educate and convince people to change their behavior, one property owner at a time.

“It’s a little bit like religion. You have to get the religion,” he said. “Some people have it, and some people don’t.” 

The association will next discuss the health of East Pond during a meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Williams School, Oakland.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com