FRANKLIN — Residents and visitors to Georges Pond in Franklin may have clearer waters to swim and boat in in coming years. At least that’s the hope of the Georges Pond Association, which oversaw the first alum treatment applied to the pond last week.
“Applying this application essentially resets the natural chemical balance in the lake back to what it was decades ago,” said John Eliasberg, president of the association’s board of directors, who watched as a barge from HAB Aquatic Solutions of Nebraska deposited the alum across the lake over several days last week.
“We wanted to treat the lake as soon as we could,” said Eliasberg. The water, which has been plagued by algae blooms for the past eight years, had a “horrific bloom two years ago,” said Eliasberg, that turned the water into something resembling pea soup.
“Last year we had to do the science that would form the basis of the recommendation of what we should do,” Eliasberg continued. “This was the year we wanted to start treatment.”
The blooms are in large part the result of excessive phosphorus, one of algae’s favorite foods, which is found in just about everything, from rocks to sewage and agricultural fertilizer. A certain amount of phosphorus is essential for plants and animals to survive, but too much of it causes the overgrowth of algae, which not only makes water miserable to swim and recreate in but also lowers oxygen levels in the water, killing fish and other aquatic life.
Alum (short for aluminum sulfate) treatments have been around for decades as a method to treat algae blooms. When applied to the water, alum forms a cotton-candy like “floc” (short for “flocculation,” a clumping of fine particles) that sticks to phosphorus 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.
But spreading alum is no small task, and it isn’t cheap. The first treatment on Georges Pond cost around $180,000, said Eliasberg.
“That includes the actual cost of the treatment, the science that we had to do to come up with the recommendation and the considerable expense we’ve incurred to monitor the water after the treatment,” he said, to ensure that the other wild and aquatic life in the lake aren’t harmed.
Alum treatments have been around since the 1970s and are considered one of the most successful and least expensive ways to keep algae blooms from occurring, depending on the lake’s geography and conditions.
They are generally safe, although they can go wrong — a botched application lowered the pH of a lake in Washington state enough to kill hundreds of fish in 2008. That’s why the association and state scientists from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) are closely monitoring the pH and other conditions.
“We tested the lake before the treatment, we tested the lake all during the treatment and we’ll be testing the lake after the treatment to monitor the effects,” said Eliasberg. “We will be producing a report for the Maine DEP that provides all of the data.”
“An alum treatment is not something lay people do themselves,” said Marvin Ellison, the organization’s treasurer. “It’s not for amateurs. From the beginning we’ve worked with really qualified water quality scientists and we’ve worked with the Maine DEP, who had to issue a permit for the water alum application to make sure it was going to be done in a highly competent and appropriate way.”
The effects of the treatment should result in a clearer lake almost immediately, Ellison added, but this is the beginning, not the end. The group also plans to do a second treatment as soon as it can raise the funds. “The second treatment will be really critical for lengthening the impact,” he said. “Our hope is that with a second treatment that this could last as long as 20 years.”
But even that won’t be enough to keep algae from blossoming in the future. Also key is making sure driveways, septic fields and stream banks are properly maintained and built so the soil and sediment doesn’t wash phosphorus into the lake when it rains.
The association worked with scientists and state officials, including Tristan Taber and Ken Wagner of Water Resources Services (Wagner is also a member of the Lake Stewards of Maine) and Linda Bacon at the Maine DEP, throughout the process, said Eliasberg and Ellison. It also was awarded a grant from the DEP for $80,000 to help lakeside property owners address problem areas, such as steep gravel camp roads that are dumping phosphorus into the lake.
The town of Franklin has also offered some support, said Ellison and Eliasberg.
“It would be lovely if the coffers were large and they were able to contribute financially,” said Ellison, but “I think that sadly is not the case in Franklin and it’s not the case in most small towns throughout Maine where some of the problems are trying to be addressed locally.”
Members of the Georges Pond Association also have worked with scientists to draw up a 10-year watershed plan to help restore and manage the water quality going forward.
“We don’t have all the money to do that and we may not be able to do it all,” said Eliasberg, “but that is our plan and that’s what we’re going to try and do.”
Although the alum treatments buy time, the water’s health going forward depends primarily on those efforts.
“Now it’s up to the town of Franklin, the people who use the lake, the property owners and the Georges Pond Association to avoid making the same mistakes going forward,” said Eliasberg. “If we can avoid the same mistakes and reduce the amount of phosphorus, this treatment will last longer.”
For more information, visit georgespondassociation.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the scope of the DEP grant.