By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
This summer was dry and hot, and for Tom O'Brien, president of the New Hampshire Lakes Association, the result was predictable: low water quality, especially with regard to algal blooms, which are unpleasant in general, and in the case of cyanobacteria, toxic to humans and animals.
Cyanobacteria is nothing new, O'Brien noted, as it's one of the oldest life forms on Earth. However, if climate forecasts prove accurate, algal blooms could be an increasing problem in New Hampshire's lakes.
"When we look at the climate and precipitation data that's coming out of DES and New Hampshire EPA, what it indicates is significant changes," O'Brien said. In the years to come, New Hampshire should expect to see gradually rising average temperatures, and precipitation that occurs less frequently but more severely. If that's true, algal blooms could become a regular part of the lake experience.
"If, in fact, temperatures are warming, and that precipitation patterns are changing ... those would have a direct impact on the condition of lakes," said O'Brien. Warmer ambient temperatures results in warmer water, and the amount of oxygen present in water decreases as temperature increases. That makes the water less hospitable to certain animals, such as trout, and it makes for better growing conditions for algae.
Algae also thrive in water that is rich in nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, chemicals which are often used in fertilizers. If fertilizers are used near lakes, or streams that feed into lakes, rain can sweep those nutrients into the lakes, where they will accelerate aquatic plant and algae growth. The chemical runoff is especially bad in heavy rain events, when the water falls so quickly that the soil can't absorb the water – instead, the rainwater runs along the top of the ground, absorbing and carrying with it any soluble chemical.
What's concerning to O'Brien is the observation of climate scientists that one change, already noticed and expected to continue, that places like New Hampshire are likely to have fewer rainfalls, but when it does rain, the rain will be heavier. That means more contamination, unless people who live near lakes, rivers and streams change the way they manage their properties.
"By and large, the two greatest threats we see are the spread of invasive plants and animals, and stormwater runoff," said O'Brien. The Lakes Association has focused on the first of those two threats in recent years, establishing the Lake Host monitoring program that educates and encourages boaters to clean off their boats before and after using them in a water body. This year, the Lakes Association celebrated the passing of a law that will make that behavior required by law.
With those achievements completed, O'Brien said the association is turning its attention to the problem of stormwater runoff. A survey of the community's sentiments on the problem was recently issued; those that would like to take it can find a link at nhlakes.org. O'Brien said the survey results will help drive specific actions the association pursues in coming years, and that it's also a tool to help provoke contemplation for those, especially lakeside residents, who take it.
For those who are looking to buy a lakeside home, it's tempting to think of a verdant lawn stretching right to the shoreline. After all, why make the expense of a waterfront residence except the desire to enjoy the water?
"We always run the risk of loving our lakes to death," said O'Brien. "What we're asking people to do is to look in the mirror, ask them if they're willing to make the changes necessary... We're trying to change human behavior."
If no changes are made, and algal blooms continue to make lakes an unpleasant place to be, there could be negative effects on property values, which would then affect the rest of the communities that depend upon tax revenue from lakeside properties.
While the NH Lakes Association doesn't currently have specific actions in mind at this point, results from the survey will be used to inform the development of a strategy.
"Frankly, the laws are not sufficient to protect our water quality," he said.
(File name: Lakeport Dam)
Water from Lake Winnipesaukee flows through the Lakeport Dam and into Lake Opechee. The New Hampshire Lakes Association is turning its focus from invasive species to water quality, especially as affected by climate trends. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)