The beauty and tranquility of Lake St. Catherine are among the reasons that many of us have chosen to live in or visit Vermont. Some of us are life-long area residents, while others only discovered this wonderful spot later in life and now live here part-time or year-round, or visit whenever they can. Without question, we all share a love of the lake and its surrounding countryside.
Lake St. Catherine is a unique environment, consisting of the northern Lily Pond, the central Main Lake, and the southern Little Lake, with channels connecting all three parts. Each portion of the lake faces threats, and due to their very different topography, each requires specific, targeted approaches if we are to sustain the health and vitality of the entire lake, and the ability to access it for boating, fishing and swimming for future generations.
The Lake St. Catherine Conservation Fund (LSCCF) was created in 2010 and is a nonprofit organization dedicated to securing the future of the Lake St. Catherine system. The LSCCF is a group of local citizens and part-time residents working to improve the entire lake system through heightened public awareness, lake quality monitoring, implementation of a lake restoration strategy, with concrete projects designed to address specific problems. Its research and projects have implications and potential impact across the entire lake system.
What’s Happening to Little Lake?
The LSCCF has long been investigating different methods of lake restoration, and we find that lakes all over the world are experiencing the same loss of use as our Little Lake and other parts of Lake St. Catherine. The deteriorating condition of the lake is a process known as eutrophication. This process takes place over time as vegetation decays each season and builds up nutrient-rich sediment, which in turn provides a fertile base for more vegetation – in our case, largely invasive Eurasian watermilfoil. This cycle is exacerbated by factors outside the lake as well. In a natural state, the land surrounding the lake absorbs sediment runoff and chemicals such as phosphorous and nitrogen. But with increased use of fertilizers, the buildup of houses and paved areas, and breakdown of aging septic systems, these substances find their way into the lake in increasing amounts, fueling the acceleration of the eutrophication process. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources has documented many places where the surrounding watershed feeds into Lake St. Catherine, and the state is formulating plans to control runoffs, where possible. The LSCCF stands ready to assist in ameliorating these shoreline problems, whenever possible.
Other factors are also at play, however. Vegetation in the lake dies off each year and contributes to the huge accumulation of organic sediment, particularly in Little Lake and shallower bays throughout the rest of the lake, causing navigation problems to increase. These conditions allow more sunlight to help even more vegetation grow, and so the deterioration keeps accelerating. The sediment is now over 40 feet deep in places in Little Lake!
The use of herbicides to control milfoil (deployed by the Lake St. Catherine Association throughout the lake for many years) is counterproductive in the Little Lake, since the addition of the dying organic material to the top of the sediment layer only worsens navigation problems and invasive plant growth. Using mechanical harvesters is a stopgap control measure to buy time until we can successfully implement non-chemical means to solve the problem.
What Can Be Done?
Restoring a lake undergoing eutrophication is a difficult problem that is being wrestled with in many places around the world. The LSCCF has researched a number of methods that have been used in both domestic and foreign settings. These strategies fall into three basic categories: mechanical, chemical, and biological.
Mechanical treatments include such activities as harvesting, hand-pulling of weeds, raking, dredging, laying in barriers, and suction harvesting. Chemical treatments include the use of herbicides and dyes which can temporarily kill off vegetation. Biological controls attempt to restore the natural balance through the use of herbivorous organisms (weevils, enzymes, carp, etc.) and/or by adding more oxygen to the water (aeration) to encourage natural breakdown of organic sediment and attrition of excess vegetation.
After extensive research and observation of treatments in other lakes, the LSCCF is pursuing three approaches: aeration, dredging, and harvesting.
As a first-time experiment in Vermont, the state’s Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) issued the LSCCF permits to conduct aeration in the Little Lake. The first set of 9 diffusers was installed six years ago on the east side of Little Lake, later expanded to 13, and then followed by another set of 14 on the west side three years ago. According to our measurements (which are, unfortunately, disputed by the ANR), the areas with aerating diffusers are deepening at the rate of about eight inches per year. There are places on the east side that are now over ten feet deep to the top of the sediment, an improvement of over five feet! The lake is healthier as evidenced by the fact that there has not been a fish kill (even with record heat) since the aeration systems were installed.
Thus far, the Conservation Fund has invested approximately $100,000 and countless hours of volunteer time in getting this aeration system up and running. The Fund directors are convinced that this system is having a positive impact on navigation, fishing and the overall health of Little Lake, and to sustain this progress, the LSCCF is vigorously pursuing permission from the ANR to continue this experiment, with an eye toward expanding its implementation to all of Little Lake. Without question, the expansion will require new funding.
The LSCCF also has a permit from the state to conduct an experimental hydraulic dredging project, to address a runoff issue in the northwest corner of Little Lake. Implementation of this project will also require additional funding.
As many of you have seen, for the past two years, the LSCCF has carried out a harvesting operation to remove surface vegetation and cut plants below the surface.
Here’s one of the harvesters clearing a path and getting ready to unload a large hopperful of nuisance vegetation.
Last year, the LSCCF added a second harvester, bringing the total investment in weed removal to date to $80,000. A team of volunteer and paid staff have conducted over 650 hours of harvesting time and removed 2,400 cubic yards of weeds from Little Lake over the past two years. This year’s plan calls for the removal of at least that much by the end of the season in October.
What Else Are We Doing?
We continue to develop strategies and gather information in many ways:
- We use modern monitoring equipment to study the lake and report to the state such information as dissolved oxygen levels, temperature, growth patterns, and more.
- We have carried out depth measurements proving Little Lake depths to hard bottom of up to over forty feet (1-5 ft. of water, 35+ ft. of soft sediment bottom), refuting the theory, long-held by some state scientists, that it was an “impounded wetland.”
- We have held public information meetings such as our Lake Summit and Lake Forum.
- We have visited other lakes in Vermont and other states to observe their successful management practices.
- We have hosted Lake Restoration Seminars with experts and other lake groups.
- We have developed consultation relationships with noted scientists and other experts in restoration procedures.
- We have assisted with ongoing water sampling by the state of Vermont.
- We have catalogued the various plant life in Little Lake and created maps of plant distribution.
- We have developed a lake quality monitoring program to access the results of our strategy.
- We have led the formation of a coalition of lake associations in Vermont.
Most of the financial support for the LSCCF’s work has come from the State of Vermont and the Town of Wells. However, without members’ dues and donations from members and friends of the lake, and the encouragement of all those who enjoy the joy of living and boating on Lake St. Catherine, these efforts cannot succeed. Please join the LSCCF and help us secure the lake’s future.
For more information, please visit our website, lakematters.com. You can also contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or at:
Lake St. Catherine Conservation Fund
PO Box 52
Wells, VT 05774