ORLEANS – After a month-long closure, Pilgrim Lake reopened late last week to public swimming. But concerns remain from abutters and residents about the lake's water quality.
Several people addressed the select board Sept. 6 urging officials to treat the lake with alum. The board voted the same night to place an article on the warrant for next month's special town meeting seeking $50,000 in free cash to pay for the treatment.
Concurrently, the board has directed that permits be filed with the town's conservation commission in hopes that the lake can be treated by next summer.
A cyanobacteria bloom in early August prompted the town's health department to close the lake to swimming. The bloom was detected by the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, which regularly tests water bodies on the Cape, including the lake, for evidence of algae blooms.
Orleans Health Agent Alex Fitch said that on Sept. 7, the health department received results from samples that showed that cyanobacteria cell counts lower than guidelines set by the state Department of Public Health.
"These results were the second of two successive lab results, from samples collected a week apart, that demonstrated the levels we needed to see in order to lift the advisory," she said in an email. "The health department removed the signs and updated the town website [Sept. 7]."
Fear Of Future Closures
The day before the lake was reopened, residents addressed the select board during public comment to stress the importance of treating the lake with alum, which was similarly used to treat water quality issues at Uncle Harvey's Pond in past years.
In an email to Town Manager Kim Newman on Aug. 28, George Meservey, the town's director of planning and community development, outlined the process by which planning for the treatment might unfold. It could take 23 weeks before the project is put out to bid, with an estimated cost of $44,000 that would cover the work and permitting.
Meservey said on that timetable, treatment could be undertaken in February or March.
"The timing would be consistent with anticipated time of year restrictions to protect migrating fish," Meservey wrote, referring to restrictions set by the state Division of Marine Fisheries to protect herring that run through the Pilgrim Lake fish ladder.
"Tonight, your job as the executive branch of our town is to vote 'Yes' for the recommended remedial treatment, and to get the process moving onto its next steps," said Richard Levy, a member of the town's marine and fresh water quality committee who spoke on behalf of his fellow committee member, Ed Hafner.
Sue Sargent, current president of the Friends of Crystal Lake, raised concerns about how options for public swimming were "diminished" this summer with Pilgrim's closure.
"If we have a reputation as having ponds that are not swimmable, that is going to have huge ramifications, as you can imagine," she cautioned the select board.
Sargent raised concerns that a lack of progress on treating the pond will lead to the loss of swimming at Pilgrim next summer, something she said is "just not acceptable."
Not everyone in attendance at last week's meeting spoke in support of alum, however. While proponents noted how alum helped improve water quality at Uncle Harvey's, Orleans resident Len Short said "we don't know what the long term impact" of the treatment is for local waterways.
Judith Scanlon, who chairs the marine and fresh water quality committee, disagreed, and said that kind of "misinformation" has served to prevent the town from acting on water quality issues sooner.
Scanlon also questioned why another town meeting article needs to be approved to treat Pilgrim, citing funding that has already been approved through town meeting in 2019 and 2021 to address water quality in the town's waterways.
Funding is still available in both articles, but because neither article specifically addresses using alum at Pilgrim Lake, that funding cannot be used, Newman said.
"They specifically say 'studies,'" she said of the past articles. "You can't get around that."
A Challenge To Alum Proponents
Mark Mathison of the select board said while he supported going forward with an article for the alum treatment, he also wanted a commitment from the lake's abutters to do their part in protecting the lake. Specifically, he challenged them to stop using pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals that have been shown to adversely impact the town's waterways.
"That goes a long way to tell the rest of the people in town that you're serious about solving the problem in your backyard, and you're not going to conduct business as usual with the greenest lawns in town while the rest of the town works to clean up the lake with alum," he said.
A separate article will appear on the Oct. 16 warrant seeking permission to petition the state legislature to allow the town to create a local bylaw regulating the use of pesticides.
Abutters spoke in support of Mathison's recommendation, and also pledged to be part of an effort to better educate people about alum use. Peter Allgeier, a member of the Friends of Pilgrim Lake, pledged to bring the matter up at the group's Sept. 9 meeting.
Scanlon spoke in support of better educating people about alum treatment and how it works.
"I think everyone out there who has concerns or questions about alum should have a venue to ask those questions," she said.
John Jannell, the town's conservation agent, said in an email last week that the commission will await a "notice of intent" from the town to begin its review of any plan to treat the lake. He estimated the commission's review of the project could take between six and eight weeks.
In his Aug. 28 email, Meservey said the town will first hire an environmental consultant to prepare the notice of intent. The intent could be filed in the next three to six weeks, while the commission's review of the project could begin at the end of the year.
With commission approval, the project could begin as early as February, according to Meservey's timeline. But there's also the potential for the commission's decision to be appealed to the state department of environmental protection, he noted. That could extend the permitting period by as many as 26 weeks.
But Fitch said in her email that the lake would be open to swimming in 2024 even without the treatment, barring any future blooms or water quality issues.
"The health department will continue to collect water samples once a week to monitor for bacteria, and the water sampling for blue green algae (cyanobacteria) will continue much like it did this summer," she said. "If there are any issues the health department will communicate with the public and issue an advisory."
Email Ryan Bray at firstname.lastname@example.org