Crystal Lake at a ‘tipping point’

East Chop Association presents aquatic and vegetation management plan to Oak Bluffs conservation commission.

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The East Chop Association is working to implement an aquatic and vegetation management plan for the deteriorating Crystal Lake, where invasive species and algae have taken over. — Lucas Thors

Crystal Lake on East Chop Drive in Oak Bluffs is in trouble, and the East Chop Association (ECA) is looking to implement a five-year aquatic and vegetation management plan for the treasured resource.

The 12.5-acre isolated water body is subject to a number of highly invasive plant species that are spreading around the periphery, and some plants are even beginning to march into the water itself.

Although eutrophication and nutrient buildup in Crystal Lake aren’t the primary immediate concern for the ECA, if enough dead plant matter accretes at the bottom, that could be a major issue that arises later on.

On Sunday, the ECA presented its notice of intent (NOI) application for the initiative to the Oak Bluffs conservation commission. The NOI includes treatments for invasive aquatic and bankside vegetation, along with measures to preserve the viewing corridors that are being obstructed by overgrown trees and shrubs.

“I am speaking on behalf of many of the [ECA] members that believe we need to use all our possible resources to save Crystal Lake,” Craig Dripps, president of the ECA for 28 years, said at the commission hearing at the Sailing Camp in Oak Bluffs.

Dripps related the condition of the rapidly deteriorating Crystal Lake to the Peter Norton House catching fire. He stressed that such a serious and immediate situation must be addressed using the necessary tools to get the job done.

“People called the fire department with the hope that they would come and save the house. Imagine if the department showed up, and the chief said, ‘Oh, we aren’t going to use hoses on this fire, only buckets.’ Well, Crystal Lake is not on fire, but it’s being subjected to other serious destructive forces which need to be combated with every scientifically sound and legally approved resource we have.”

In order to kill off the dense stands of phragmites, blobs of brown algae, milfoil, and several other invasive species in and around Crystal Lake, chemical treatments would need to be used.

A particular section of the Oak Bluffs wetland regulations stipulates that those widespread chemical treatments may be used only under extraordinary conditions.

But Dripps said now is the time to employ all the necessary tools to ensure that Crystal Lake isn’t lost to the Island as a viable water resource for things like recreation and fishing.

“I think we may be at a tipping point with Crystal Lake. Five years ago, there was no milfoil or pondweed, and the phragmites and invasive plants did not spread appreciably. Today, the milfoil, phragmites, and other invasive plants are consuming and suffocating the pond and its surroundings,” Dripps said. He added that trees are blocking the views that East Chop residents have grown to appreciate so much.

“We need cost-effective, long-term management, which is best achieved by use of Massachusetts-approved chemical applications,” Dripps said.

Members of the ECA are well acquainted with the issue of invasive species and algae inundating the water, and they have tried a number of avenues to retake the lake, including hydro-raking, which pulls aquatic vegetation at the roots, along with introducing bacteria into the water that digest nutrients and sediment, intending to starve the algae and dense weeds.

None of that was doing the trick. 

Then, in 2002, the ECA teamed up with Lycott Environmental to manage phragmites and pondweed with a special herbicide, and introduced aluminum sulfate treatments to reduce nutrients and available food sources for the algae.

After about three years, the dense stands of phragmites and other invasive shrubs had retreated, and the algae blooms were virtually nonexistent.

But with no continual management, those problems have returned with a vengeance.

Mark Manganello, an environmental consultant for the firm LEC, which was hired by the ECA,

said the multifaceted project will need to take into account the protected wetland resource areas surrounding Crystal Lake, as well as the adjacent barrier beach coastal floodplain that is regulated as land subject to coastal storm flowage.

All these elements constitute a high degree of scrutiny for the NOI, and variances would be required in any kind of approval that allows for chemical treatments and disturbance to important natural areas. Even the area that separates the lake from East Chop Drive is regulated as a coastal dune, and is protected. 

Manganello broke the project down into three categories: in-water pond management, invasive species control measures, and view corridors.

The pond management measures involve low-water milfoil treatment, brown algae treatment, and phragmites treatment.

Invasive species control measures also involve phragmites treatment on the periphery of the water, along with chemical treatments for Asiatic bittersweet, Asian willow, autumn olive, and glossy buckthorn. On the landward side, there is also a patch of Japanese knotweed that is expanding.

According to Manganello, there are 14 view corridors surrounding Crystal Lake. He highlighted the fact that the ocean-facing side of the lake, where most of the corridors are, is highly susceptible to coastal storms, and needs to be stable and undisturbed.

This means that any landscaping or land management in those areas would need to be extremely precis, and would need to avoid any impact on the coastal dune. Trees will have to be removed and pruned regularly in order to maintain those view corridors.

With such a major area of effect involved with the proposed project, it has been filed as an ecological restoration limited project.

Certain activities like the chemical treatment of thousands of square feet of invasive plants in a protected resource area will undoubtedly result in some disturbance, so Manganello said the conservation commission would need to allow for variances that exempt the project from certain environmental and land-use regulations under the ecological restoration limited project permitting avenue.

“The phragmites population around the lake is very widespread. We are talking about tens of thousands of square feet. The wellness protection act only allows up to 5,000 square feet of disturbance to a resource area. We are going to be way over that just with phragmites treatment,” Manganello said.

In closing, Manganello said he believes that the project should qualify for a variance from the commission because it will provide a great environmental benefit to the lake for years to come.

Mickey Marcus, an invasive species expert with SWCA Environmental Consultants, said that although blobs of algae and invasive vegetation can be effects of overfertilization, water quality data shows low levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.

He added that the lake bank is in good shape, and there is nothing in the proposed project related to bank restoration.

Currently, the average depth of the lake is around 3 feet. Marcus said that as the lake becomes shallower, it becomes warmer, and more prone to algae blooms.

A big part of the NOI is to have a permit available in order to react to lake conditions when they look to be problematic. He said there is no proactive treatment for dealing with these kinds of invasive species and algae — just regular management and keeping a watchful eye.

“You can’t pretreat; it’s a reactive assessment. If there is all the sudden algae all over the lake, it is treated. If you have too much algae, it dies off, robs the oxygen in the water, and you have fish and wildlife kills,” Marcus explained.

Depending on the problem and proposed solution, there are a number of timelines that would be running simultaneously to remove the pesky plants and algae.

The project would implement a onetime treatment of systemic herbicide that kills the milfoil at its roots, and algae control would need to be permitted to be conducted as needed.

Phragmites are also treated chemically, and Marcus said there would be a significant dieback in the first year.

“But they won’t completely die back. There is usually an annual maintenance treatment of phragmites. That is an issue that will not go away with one treatment,” Marcus said.

He noted that if this issue isn’t carefully addressed each year, the aggressive reeds could advance again, and will take over if left unchecked.

An additional treatment for invasive woody shrubs around the lake would use a combination of pulling for smaller shrubs, and cutting and dabbing herbicide on the cut stems for larger shrubs.

ECA member Leslie Bryan said it is her understanding that if the town denies their application, they would be in a position where they would have to appeal. “That will take up valuable time and resources of ours and yours,” Bryan said.

Conservation commission chair Joan Hughes said there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered in terms of the vegetation and aquatic management, as well as the specifics related to maintaining the view corridors.

“We really need more information,” Hughes said. “This is an extremely complicated NOI. Under different circumstances, this may have come in as three different NOIs, and so we have a lot to deal with.”

She said the commission has hired a consultant who has worked closely with many of the ECA experts, who will guide the commission through the review process.

Although she said she understands the “tremendous care” the ECA has for Crystal Lake, and appreciates the amount of time, effort, and money they put into the application, the commission must abide by a strict process, which requires much more detail from the applicant. 

The hearing was continued until August 5 at 4 pm at the Sailing Camp.

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