State Agency, Lake Property Owners Disagree Over Little Lake St. Catherine Restoration
How far should humans go to change the course of nature? That's one of the big questions behind a controversy about a lake in Rutland County.
Property owners along Little Lake St. Catherine, in Wells, say they have a technological fix for chronic sediment and weed problems in the lake. But officials at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources say the lake has gone through a natural aging process — and probably should be left alone.
David Emmons heads the Lake St. Catherine Conservation Fund; his family has been on the lake since the mid-1990s. As he lowered his motorboat into the waters of Little Lake St. Catherine on a recent summer day, Emmons explained that he's seen the lake both decline and then recover, thanks to human intervention.
"Infilling is really the thing we've witnessed on Little Lake. ... We've witnessed this explosion of vegetation and a lack of decomposition," Emmons said.
A submerged forest of aquatic weeds stretches to the middle of the 180-acre lake: some is invasive Eurasian water milfoil, other plants are native. The lake is shallow, just four to five feet deep, and the weeds grow in a layer of sediment that in some places is 30 feet deep – a point Emmons proves by pushing a large pole into the depths.
"There goes 20 [feet]," he said, as he strained to push the pole deeper into the muck. "That's still not bottom but it's close probably. ... In the first 20 you'd lose it; if you let go at 20, it's gone. That's how loose it is."
People who have lived near the lake for years say it wasn't always this way. Bob Short said he used to water ski almost every evening in the summer up to the early 2000s.
"Last year, I actually took kids out in a tube around here," Short said. "Could I do it today? I'd burn my boat up by the time I got three-quarters of the way around."
Emmons, Short and others who use the lake say there's a way to reduce the sediment and slow the weed growth: It involves bringing air to the lake bottom through a system of compressors and aerators, and the increased oxygen speeds the biological process which breaks down the sediment.
They say they've shown the technology works. Emmons said just nine aerators pumping in air over six seasons brought measurable improvement, including an increase in depth. Now his organization would like to install 40 aerators, and they also want to add an enzyme that will speed the process.
"The aeration, the limited system that we had, was working," Emmons said. "You know, we were seeing an impact. And that impact was substantial."
"The aeration, the limited system that we had, was working. ... We were seeing an impact. And that impact was substantial." — David Emmons
However, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources isn’t convinced. Officials said the sediment may have simply moved around, and they're leery of granting a permit to address a problem that they say is just what nature intended.
Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore said what Emmons and others are seeing is just what happens to shallow, warmwater lakes over time.
"This is a natural ecosystem and our strong preference is to do as little manipulation, as little human manipulation, as possible," Moore said, "while still trying to balance water quality considerations, habitat considerations, as well as the recreation considerations that certainly are front of mind for the shoreline property owners."
The agency's stance frustrates Emmons and others. They disagree with the state about the science — and even the history of the lake.
Moore said Little Lake St. Catherine was probably once a wetland complex, which would explain the deep sediment. She said a dam was built at one end that extended the open water area.
But Emmons has maps from the 1700s showing a lake there.
"Very easy to tell that it's always been a waterbody," he said. "OK, so this is the kind of things that we've done over the years as an organization, is dug into the history so that we understand the lake that we're trying to restore."
Moore said the maps don’t prove Little Lake St. Catherine began as a natural lake, just that some water existed inside the wetlands complex.
The disagreement extends to how the state and the Lake St. Catherine Conservation Fund interpret the results following the years of aeration. Emmons said there's strong evidence the sediment has not been moved around, but actually declined.
Fundamentally, the property owners want a chance to show that the technology works and could do even more to bring back the lake to usable condition.
"This is a natural ecosystem and our strong preference is to do as little manipulation, as little human manipulation, as possible." — Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore
Michael Marine, who has property on the lake, said the technology could become a useful demonstration project for other shallow lakes that are also filling in with sediment.
"This is a relatively limited lake," Marine said, "and you should be able to show real change in that muck base, of which is currently up to 35 feet deep. And if you can get it down 15 feet in three years, you would have a fantastic change."
Moore said the lake is actually healthy and free of pollution — it's just not an ecosystem that the property owners can swim or boat in. Moore said if she was a lakeshore property owner, she’d probably have a different point of view.
"We're not lakeshore property owners. And our job, our charge, is to steward Vermont's natural resources," she said. "And so, you know, how much intervention do you allow as part of that stewardship is a challenging question."
Emmons and others said they've thought about the challenge of intervening with nature. Lakes do age naturally but they argue if they can make a difference, and preserve property values, why not try?
More from VPR — Find more reporting on water issues here.
Lake Peekskill in Putnam County, New York, is one case where tinkering with nature has apparently worked. The town spent about $175,000 on aeration equipment and the enzyme treatment to restore water quality.
Putnam Valley Town Supervisor Sam Oliverio said for several summers the 80-acre lake was pretty much unswimmable because of blue-green algae outbreaks. They began treating the lake last summer.
"It is amazing. From non-usage of the lake — two years ago it was almost zero. Last year we had a few more, but this year we're back up at the numbers that we should have been or would have been 20 years ago," Oliverio said. "It's an amazing process. It's hard to believe that it could work so well, but it does."
For people on Little Lake St. Catherine, the challenge is not just restoring the lake to the point where it's swimmable. They also want to preserve the value of their property.
While on a lake outing with Emmons, the prop on his boat churned slowly through the weeds as we made our way to the opposite shoreline.
"We're going to have trouble getting in real close, because it's so shallow," said Emmons, as his boat left a muddy wake behind.
We passed a house with a "for sale" perched near the weedy shoreline. Emmons is familiar with this unsold property.
"It's been for sale for more than six months," Emmons explained. "Everyone, we're told by real estate agent, everyone who comes to see the house ... they see the house, they walk down to the lake, and then they leave."
Correction: 8:25 a.m, July 24, 2019: Story was updated to note David Emmons heads the Lake St. Catherine Conservation Fund, not the Lake St. Catherine Association.