The shoreline of China Lake is seen Friday at the China Lake West Basin in Vassalboro. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

CHINA — Plans to prevent algae blooms in China Lake are underway after the town secured thousands of dollars in federal grants this week.

Local volunteers aim to raise China Lake’s water quality by reversing shoreline erosion and replanting vegetation near the lake. The more than $100,000 in funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency will be used in the decadeslong push to stop the algae blooms.

The second phase of the 10-year China Lake Watershed-Based Management Plan began once the funding was secured, according to Kennebec County Soil & Water Conservation District project manager Jennifer Jespersen, though the overarching plan first began in 2022.

China Lake is at high risk of algal blooms because of large amounts of phosphorus in the lake, Jespersen said. Decades of soil erosion, storm water runoff and human development have loaded the lake with phosphorus, which can fuel large algae blooms in the summer.

“There’s a lot of historical phosphorus loading in the lakes, which is built up in the sediment over time but gets released in the summer,” Jespersen said. “There’s also current sources, like runoff from when it rains or storm water that’s running into the lake. When you have both of them happening at the same time, that can send a lot of phosphorus into the lake.”

China Lake supplies drinking water for tens of thousands of people in Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro, which Jespersen said makes the watershed project vital to preserving public health.

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The current phase of work should reduce the phosphorus levels by reversing shoreline erosion, mitigating stormwater runoff and replanting shoreline vegetation at roughly a dozen locations, according to China Lake Association President Stephen Greene.

“We will address problems around the watershed at residential sites, on public lands, on roads, and so forth,” Greene said. “Some of those projects will involve outreach, workshops, remediation on properties, the installation of buffers of filtration steps, maybe shoreline stabilization.”

China’s select board plans to discuss one of the sites the coalition plans to work on at its meeting Monday night. The town-owned Landing Road boat launch was identified as a remediation site due to extensive lakefront shoreline erosion, Greene said.

A paddleboarder passes by as parents and others watch the shoreline during the youth fishing derby in August 2023. The event was part of the China Community Days celebration at China Lake. Organizers say 64 participants took part in the derby for youth 15 or younger. The young participants caught sunfish, bass, white perch, turtles, clams and weeds. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

“A lot of boats and trailers enter and disturb the soil, and it’s a gravel road, so the result is there’s more soil erosion,” said Greene.

The coalition of two towns and four environmental groups is unprecedented in central Maine, Jespersen said.

Groups involved with the project include the conservation district, the China Lake Association, the China Region Lakes Alliance, the Kennebec Water District and the towns of China and Vassalboro.

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“It’s a huge undertaking,” Jespersen said. “We’ve been chipping away at this stuff for a long time, but this is the first kind of concerted effort where all the partners are working together collaboratively to do it all.”

“China Lake first started having algae blooms back in 1983, and they kind of got recognition as what people now have known as the ‘China Lake Syndrome,'” Jespersen explained. “That was when people first started realizing that what we did in the landscape affected water quality.”

A Morning Sentinel newspaper clipping from Aug. 23, 1983.

A boom in nearby agricultural and shoreline development during the 1970s saw large amounts of phosphorus enter China Lake, Jespersen said, building up at the bottom of the lake for decades before eventually causing large, persistent algae blooms over the following decades.

China Lake was first listed as an “impaired lake” by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in 1998 due to its algae blooms, though work to repair eroded shorelines and replant vegetation largely began only in recent years.

The coalition will soon offer lakeside residents “buffer bundles” of native plants specifically selected for shoreline planting to prevent future erosion. Offerings will range from trees and shrubs to ferns and flowers, Jespersen said.

“It’s an initiative to raise awareness about the benefits of replanting the shoreline for soil erosion prevention, water quality, wildlife habitat, but also like aesthetically bringing in beautiful plants and flowers to your yard,” she said. “It’s a multifaceted approach but this will really help get people involved.”

Work on the current phase of the watershed project will conclude in 2026 with the overarching plan slated to conclude in 2032.

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