Lakefront residents are worried that the Department of Environmental Conservation doesn’t care about what they are calling a worsening problem in Little Lake St. Catherine: a thickening forest, a carpet of weeds and a 30-foot-thick layer of muck below.
But the DEC expressed quite the opposite: While they refused to renew a permit to aerate Little Lake St. Catherine, citing the lack of professional study and evidence that aeration doesn’t harm the natural ecosystem of the lake, the permits to harvest and dredge are still available as they’ve been proven to be non-harmful to the environment.
Commissioner Emily Boedecker stressed in a phone interview that applicants for their permits are treated equitably, including the application for a permit to aerate when aeration has not yielded positive, non-harmful results for combating silt levels and dense weed populations making the surface of the lake unusable by boaters.
Residents affirm that for the past seven years, they have measured results from the aeration, but in late May, Boedecker sent a letter to David Emmons, president of the Lake St. Catherine Conservation Fund, saying that though they doubted a research study on the effects of aeration would yield the results the LSCCF desired — enough to provide cause for an aeration permit — staff would “welcome the opportunity to talk with you about the possibility of providing a permit for a study of fine-bubble diffusion as a management tool.”
Boedecker wrote, “This approach assumes you and a qualified partner are able to develop a study design that will establish whether this approach is effective.”
To conduct the study, Boedecker called on Emmons to fulfill six requirements to warrant a study of the technology on a body of water as small as Little Lake, the southern part of Lake St. Catherine.
Emmons and the LSCCF would need to first identify and quantify a research goal, and evidence that research of other methods has been done and reasoning as to why the method of choice was chosen.
The group would need to provide all data they’ve compiled thus far, a hypothesis as to what the outcome of their new study might be, a monitoring system that abides by the EPA’s new Quality Assurance Guidelines, a step-by-step timeline to the completion of the project, and a letter of support from a university researcher or qualified independent consultant with experience in the field.
In multiple letters of support for LSCCF to the DEC, lakefront property owners alleged that as late as 2016 they purchased property on Little Lake St. Catherine with the intention of enjoying boating, water skiing and kayaking on the lake as per the Public Trust Doctrine in Vermont statute which the residents alleged the DEC was not complying with.
But Boedecker urged that there are many different aspects of the public trust.
“It’s not that every single body of water can provide every single benefit. ... You have to look at the naturally occurring conditions,” Boedecker said.
The Public Trust Doctrine says all lakes, ponds and lands underneath them are “held in trust by the state”, and the state has a responsibility to manage these waters in a way that “preserves and protects a healthy environment, guarantees the right of Vermonters to hunt, fish, boat, swim and enjoy other recreational opportunities, and provides the greatest benefit to the people of the state.”
While the doctrine guarantees the right to these opportunities, it does not guarantee the physical ability to do so, which is why the LSCCF is demanding more action from the DEC. The state maintains that the nutrient and phosphorus levels have remained stable in the lake despite the blossoming forests of Eurasian milfoil growing from the “soft bottom” of the lake, or the top layer of muck building up from the “hard bottom” of the lake, according to Misha Cetner, permit analyst for Lake and Shoreland Permitting at the DEC.
“This is a eutrophic lake,” Boedecker said. “It’s in a (uniform) state. It has natural plant growth every year ... it’s in stable condition.”
The shallow bottom and large populations of plant life were natural for a body of water that was most likely once a wetland before it was flooded, though climate change, cool, wet springs and the invasion of Eurasian milfoil have changed the ecosystem a bit, Cetner said.
Major changes to the plant population could accidentally lead to an overabundance of algae, according to Cetner, which was one of the reasons for relying on harvesting the milfoil and keeping the plant population at bay, but still healthy.
“It’s not their job to tell us that eutrophication is a natural process,” Emmons said. “Their job is to maintain the lake for the use of the public. ... If it once provided the benefit, it should always provide the benefit.”
Emmons as well as fellow lakefront residents Tina Peterson, Michael Marine, R. Lee Evans, and Larry and Meredith Smith, allege that not too long ago it was possible to fish, boat, kayak and dive into Little Lake, one of the many reasons why they initially chose to buy their lakefront properties.
The Smiths, normally full-time residents in Stamford, Connecticut, carried out a tradition of renting a home on a body of water for two weeks every year with their three children since they were young, they wrote.
After visiting Winnisquam Lake and Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, Town Cove in Orleans, Massachusetts, and Lake Eden in Eden, Vermont, the Smiths said they decided on a quaint parcel on Little Lake St. Catherine, but almost immediately after purchasing their property in April 2016 they experienced an extremely weedy summer.
“If we had known how bad the weed situation was on Little Lake in 2016, we would have purchased a lake house elsewhere (likely in New Hampshire),” the Smiths wrote. “Since we purchased in 2016, the property value of our home (like all of those around Little Lake) is already starting to decline.”
Residents said the declining property values and thickening state of the lake would destroy the economy of the small town, and encouraged the DEC to give the LSCCF a chance to continue what they called “holistic” treating of the lake. Robin Barley, a part-time resident of Wells and Landing, New Jersey, said since she bought her property in 2002, there’s been more algae and weeds clogging up the lake with every summer, and she no longer can use her little Sunfish sail boat to cross the water.
“I’ve noticed a difference in the clarity of the water, it’s not as clear and crisp,” Barley said. “It almost looks like you could walk across it. ... are they (the DEC) willing to accept that all of Lake St Catherine is becoming a swamp? Is that really what they want?”