State study requested of growing algae bloom on Lake Wallenpaupack

PALMYRA TWP. (Pike) - Unusually wet and warm weather, often blamed on a changing global climate, is a suspected factor in the greener shade reported in Lake Wallenpaupack waters this season.
The Lake Wallenpaupack Watershed Management District (LWWMD), at the forefront of addressing the 5,700 acre lake’s water quality these last 40 years, is looking to the state for help with this lake-wide problem.
“As I am sure all of you have noticed, there is quite a bit of green water in the lake, right now,” Nick Spinelli, District Administrator, said in his report to the LWWMD board, August 21. “We’ve been getting a lot of phone calls regarding weather and the lake…”
The greening is a sign of small photosynthetic organisms common in all water bodies, typically referred to as algae, he noted on the District’s Facebook page.

Variety of factors

He noted that Lake Wallenpaupack, and many other lakes, experience algal blooms every year. A variety of factors determine the timing and severity of these blooms, including air temperature, rainfall, and availability of nutrients.
“This summer has seen higher than normal temperatures and numerous severe storm events,” Spinelli noted. “Severe storm events contribute significant amounts of nutrients to the lake.” He stated that it would be his guess that severe weather is the major driver, although a study needs to be done.
Stormwater runoff, erosion, over-use of fertilizer, and septic systems are the main sources of nutrients that feed the algae and cause the blooms to grow, creating a greenish shade on the surface of the lake.
The LWWMD contracts with an aquatics biology firm, Aqua Link, to do monthly sampling at two places on the lake, from May through October. The sampling looks at a variety of parameters which are analyzed in the lab. The firm produces an annual report that shows trends for each parameter from year to year. The overall report has been one of consistent improvement since the non-profit Watershed District was organized in 1979 in response to a severe degradation of water quality experienced at the time.
This monitoring, however, serves only long-term analysis rather than a concentrated study of a particular occurrence. Spinneli said that the June sampling report looked normal. The July sampling results have not come back yet, but he told The News Eagle that it remained beyond their capacity to get all the answers needed.
From the start, the LWWMD has been assisting the community on projects including shoreline and stream bank stabilization, stormwater management, and manure management. The goal has been to reduce the amount of nutrients entering the lake to protect the water quality.

Looking to state authorities

“Basically the level of sampling and response necessary to address this further is beyond what we do as an organization,” Spinelli said. “It’s a level that requires state intervention.” He said it would take multiple testing locations and several times, beyond what the District can do.
During July the LWWMD met with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), State Representative Michael Peifer’s and Senator Lisa Baker’s aides. “We are currently working with them to help them craft a letter to go to the Governor’s Office and also the agencies on the state level that would be responsible to address this,” he said.
He reminded the board that the algae situation is far beyond the District’s financial, technical and manpower capacity as well as authority.
Carson Helfrich, District Chairman, said that the DEP representatives were very receptive and appeared to be the first group to meet with them on the issue. He said they appeared to be very willing to address it but needed direction from the Governor’s Office.

Is it unhealthy?

Is the current algae bloom a health hazard? Spinelli told The News Eagle, “That’s what we need the Commonwealth to answer.” He said some of the people calling the District asking about the green color, asked that same question. He said he has been referring them to DEP and federal EPA.
Unlike the states of New York, New Jersey and Ohio, Spinelli noted that Pennsylvania lacks the quick response protocol for an occurrence such as this.

Role of sewer plants

Wastewater treatment plants in the lake’s watershed contribute the lake’s nutrient level through discharge. The plants are under strict limits as permitted by the DEP. Monthly test results are sent to the DEP, and the Watershed District gets a report. Brian Schan, District board member and the manager of the plant at Wallenpaupack Lake Estates, said the levels of nutrients allowed to be discharged are half of what the DEP formerly permitted.
While the District doesn’t regulate, they have worked to assist sewer treatment plant operators when needed to find funding or other programs to make sure their plants run efficiently as possible, Spinelli said. He later said further, that the sewer plants are heavily regulated and are doing a good job at what they do.
Spinelli stressed that a significant factor to consider is the weather the region has been experiencing. “We had nearly 20 extra inches of rain last year, we had 10 inches ahead of schedule in our average precipitation by the time June rolled around, and we just had the hottest July on record.”
The District, it was noted, can’t control the weather but they do seek to educate the public on keeping fertilizers out of the lake, fixing erosion and septic systems.

Climate factor

He added that weather impacts on lake water quality is a nationwide and global issue.
Annie Mikol, who is on the board as representative from the Monroe county Conservation District, added that a lot more intense rainfall is predicted as part of the way the climate is changing in the region. She said it was important for this instance and the long-term, to push state legislators to advance a protocol addressing the impact.
Wayne County Commissioner Brian Smith, who serves on the LWWMD board and is a dairyman, offered the irony that as progress is made to clean a lake, can encourage algae blooms. “We can’t jump to conclusions that this is a terrible thing, it might be caused because the water has cleaned up to a point that it reacts in some fashion that we have an algae bloom.” He said it may be due to a range of elements, from the intense rain to failing septics, and it was right thing to ask the experts on the state level to investigate.
The LWWMD board meets on the third Wednesday of the month at 5:30 p.m. at the Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center.
For more information visit www.wallenpaupackwatershed.org or call 570-226-3865.