FRANKLIN — In the decades that John Eliasberg has been visiting his home on Georges Pond in Franklin, one of his great pleasures has been taking a dip in the pond’s cool, clear waters.
Except in recent years.
“In 2017 was the first time in my 60 years I said I’m not going swimming,” Eliasberg said. “I don’t think anybody went swimming. It looked like pea soup.”
That was five years after the pond experienced what scientists say was its first ever algae bloom, which turned the once crystalline water a murky, muddy green.
In the years since, Georges Pond has seen several blooms, said Eliasberg, and conditions that are increasingly favorable toward the bacteria that create them.
That has left the roughly 160 lakeshore property owners trying to figure out what to do about it (and how to pay for the plan).
“In general, our approach is going to be two-pronged,” said Eliasberg, who is president of the Georges Pond Association, the group spearheading the effort.
First, they plan on treating the pond water with alum, which can be used to reduce the amount of phosphorus in the water, a key contributor to algae blooms.
Alum treatments have been around for decades, and have a wide range of uses, from clarifying drinking water to reducing soil pH and helping dye adhere to clothing.
“It’s not as though it’s a toxic chemical,” Eliasberg said. “It’s very inert.”
Short for aluminum sulfate, alum is a compound that, when applied to the water, forms a cotton-candy like “floc” (short for “flocculation,” a clumping of fine particles) that sticks to phosphorous and settles to the bottom of the pond.
The water clears up and the phosphorus is trapped, meaning it can’t be used as food for the organisms that make the algae. Alum floc can bind phosphorus for years, helping to keep a pond clear of blooms.
Alum treatments are not without their risk — a botched application that lowered the pH of a lake in Washington state killed hundreds of fish in 2008 — but they can be one of the most successful and least expensive ways to keep algae blooms from occurring, depending on the lake’s geography and conditions.
But an alum treatment isn’t cheap.
“I think for us it will end up costing between $250,000 and $300,000,” said Eliasberg, or between $698 and $837 per acre overall for two treatments.
So far, the organization has gotten commitments from local residents for up to $200,000, said Eliasberg, adding that they had roughly $100,000 cash in hand and hope to start treating the water in the spring.
The group also raised $30,000 to pay scientists to study the water quality of the pond, and has gotten a grant from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to help residents fix septic systems that may be contributing to the problem.
But Eliasberg thinks treating the water and raising the money will be the easy part.
“Treating the water that’s in the pond can be a short-term, quick fix,” he said. But ensuring the algae doesn’t bloom in years to come, when more intense rainfall and warmer waters will likely provide a more favorable climate for it to flourish, means educating residents and enforcing rules aimed at keeping sediment from ending up in the pond.
“That’s kind of the hardest part,” Eliasberg said. “To get people to change their hearts and minds.”
Eliasberg said he wished the town was able to devote more resources to help mitigate the problem.
Eliasberg and other board members did approach town officials to discuss their plans to treat the pond with alum. Town officials couldn’t contribute financially, said Eliasberg, but said they were fine with the plans.
But the pond association, he added, “really has no authority” to enforce regulations that could prevent future phosphorous runoff. It is the town’s job to make sure that builders around the pond are following best management practices when they replace septic systems or build roads, two activities that can result in phosphorus being dumped into the pond if not done properly.
But many officials at the town work only part time there, such as Code Enforcement Officer Millard Billings, who is in the office on Monday mornings and shoulders a host of other responsibilities, including another job managing the entirety of the county’s unorganized territories. He also acts as a backup code enforcement officer in Bar Harbor.
Eliasberg said he tries to educate residents about properly managing septic systems and adding vegetation screens to prevent phosphorus from ending up in the pond. Most property owners want to do things the right way, he said, even if they don’t know what the right way is yet.
“Our job is really just to be able to raise community awareness,” Eliasberg said.