Sewer For Nearby Homes Seen As Best Option For Crystal Lake’s Health

By: Ed Maroney

The planned Meetinghouse Pond sewered area is in red at the top of this figure, which shows properties (in green) whose septic systems have added and continue to add phosphorus to Crystal Lake. Properties in yellow have newer septic systems whose discharged phosphorus has not yet reached the lake. The pink parcels do not have buildings.

ORLEANS “Wastewater TP” doesn’t mean what you think it does.

When consultants recommended this week that Orleans “consider reduction of wastewater TP as the most reliable approach to attain restoration of water quality in Crystal Lake,” they weren’t referring to toilet paper but to “total phosphorus” flowing from septic systems to the lake and creating phytoplankton blooms.

That’s a big reason the state has added Crystal Lake to its list of impaired ponds, with the need eventually to determine a TMDL (total maximum daily load) consistent with a healthy ecosystem and take action to achieve it. TMDLs are the spur driving the town’s sewering project.

Sewering a limited number of properties around Crystal Lake may be the most effective path to its restoration, according to the draft management plan and diagnostic assessment final report presented to the marine and fresh water quality committee Dec. 21. Wastewater from septic systems “is the key both in spring and summer,” said Ed Eichner, principal water scientist with TMDL Solutions and an author of the draft report. “It’s the largest source of phosphorus and largely determines what we see in the water column.”

According to the draft report, sewering to permanently remove “wastewater phosphorus from 13 of the 18 septic systems currently adding TP to the lake could attain the recommended restoration TP threshold without any management of internal sediment regeneration.” Five other area houses whose septic systems were constructed too recently to have added phosphorus to the lake yet would have to be addressed also.

The properties are tantalizingly close to the Meetinghouse Pond area, the next to be sewered by the town. In fact, one of the lots is partially in that zone.

An alternative to sewering – installing experimental phosphorus-reducing septic systems on all 18 properties – would meet the restoration threshold also, but approval of such relatively untested systems is strictly limited in Massachusetts. At this point, the cap is 15 for the whole state.

Given the years it would take for the sewer system to service the homes, the report recommends an interim measure to address the phosphorus already in the pond sediments: an in-lake treatment by aeration or application of alum. (The latter has been recommended by the committee for Uncle Harvey’s Pond; a revised notice of intent regarding the treatment that incorporates affidavits from new owners of some abutting properties is expected to be filed by the end of the year and heard by the conservation commission as soon as Jan. 19.)

The draft report, based on a review of two decades of water sampling by local volunteers as well as more recent “data gap” surveys that looked at everything from phytoplankton levels to rooted plants to freshwater mussels and more, recommends a target restoration threshold of 9.9 kilograms of total phosphorus in the water column and suggests holding off on a TMDL designation until that’s achieved.

“This is a great pond owned by the state of Massachusetts,” committee member Betsy Furtney said. “Where is our funding?”

“They own it, you pay for it,” said Brian Howes, director of the Coastal Systems Group at UMass Dartmouth, also an author of the draft report. “Towns have stepped up and said we can’t wait. I think there is some money around, (but) it’s hard to get.”

“It’s the same discussion going on with nitrogen for the estuaries,” Eichner said. “It’s a town’s responsibility to figure out a strategy and implement it.”

“Then we have bigger problems,” Furtney said. “We know pretty much all our lakes are in this situation. How do we move forward just like a pavement plan and show the capital required over the next 20 years to fix this and raise its visibility? Water quality seems to me the biggest priority for tourism, health, so many reasons. I don’t know how we can get this elevated and get moving. We made a recommendation three years ago on Uncle Harvey’s Pond and here we sit.”

When the committee meets on Jan. 11, members will consider whether to recommend adding the Crystal Lake properties to planning for sewering the Meetinghouse Pond area. Chair Judy Scanlon said it would be a good idea to put Crystal and Pilgrim lake properties on sewer “not only for what it would do for these two… but we already know at Lonnie’s Pond we need to do more than just oysters. The (nitrogen-removing) oysters have been fabulous but not enough. Before looking into alternative septic systems that cost a great amount of money to monitor, it makes sense to look at sewering these properties that can give us two for the cost of one.”

“A huge thank you to all of you,” said Sue Sargent, co-president of Friends of Crystal Lake. “I’ve been on Crystal Lake with my family since 1956 as a summer resident, then full time the last 20 years. The lake is my heart. Sewering really is the answer.”