By Andrew Strecker, Contributing Reporter
Westborough – Lake Chauncy, Westborough’s only public beach and swimming area, has suffered in recent years from potentially harmful algal blooms. Last summer was the most disruptive event so far, according to town officials.
“Our summer season, essentially it was cut in half,” Westborough Recreation Director Jenn Kirkland told the town’s board of selectmen (BOS) Feb. 11. “We had to cancel the last session of swim lessons – that impacted 50 kids.”
Beach pass holders were also affected, said Kirkland. “And on top of that, all the lifeguards we employed for summer jobs were out of a job,” she said.
Westborough Director of Public Health Steven Baccari said the beach at Lake Chauncy, located on Lyman Street, needed to be closed for almost two weeks and warnings were posted about the danger in June and July to protect humans and pets.
“The algae blooms create a toxin, and if you ingest the toxin – small amounts can cause things like gastrointestinal problems. Large amounts can cause liver problems and also neurologic damage. And it’s very harmful especially to small children and pets,” said Baccari.
There were several reported cases of dogs dying from exposure to cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, in southern U.S. states this past summer.
“We’re not alone in this,” said Baccari.
“Mainly it’s phosphorous driving the blooms. There are multiple sources for that,” he noted, such as fertilizers used around the area, wildlife and septic systems along the lake.
“You wash your car, most of those detergents have phosphorous in it. That gets washed in,” Baccari said.
“Lake Chauncy does not have a high turnover, it’s basically a fishbowl. Once summer came, high temperatures, we got the blooms,” he said, emphasizing that last year’s bloom was unusual beginning in late June. Prior years’ blooms happened in September or later, after the beach had closed.
For that reason, Baccari, Kirkland and Westborough Assistant Conservation Officer Sherri Widdiss appeared before the BOS to propose an article to be placed on the upcoming Annual Town Meeting (ATM) warrant that would fund a private company to treat the lake for cyanobacteria prevention.
“The proposal is to use a chemical, copper sulfate. Generally, in the lake right now, you will find two to four parts per million (ppm),” said Baccari. SOLitude Lake Management, the company Baccari proposes hiring, would add 1/100 ppm to treat the lake on a monthly basis from May to September.
“Copper sulfate can be applied to reservoirs. It is licensed to be used directly in drinking water supplies,” Baccari told the board.
“The [Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection] approves it. The [conservation] commission is OK with it,” said Widdiss.
Baccari projects the cost for enhanced copper sulfate treatment for a season, including water quality testing, to be just under $15,000. Treatment would need to be conducted on a yearly basis.
Selectman Syed Hashmi addressed that issue, saying, “Ultimately we are treating the symptoms, when we should be treating the cause.”
He continued, “I agree the concentrations may be low, but this is a lake. There are young children there, and I think we should be moving away from using these chemicals preventing these outbreaks from the beginning. I think we need to have a broader plan.”
Selectman Leigh Emery supported treating the lake.
“This is the only public swimming area we have. I feel we have a public duty to treat it, prevent it right from the beginning,” she said.
“I’m supportive of this moving forward,” said Selectman Allen Edinberg. “I’d like to see as part of the discussion at town meeting what path the long-term look is at IDing the source (of the blooms) and potential future prevention. I think we need two parallel paths.”
Selectman Chair Ian Johnson favored putting the proposed article on the upcoming ATM warrant.
“I think absolutely this should be in front of Town Meeting. This is exactly what Town Meeting should be talking about,” he said.
The BOS will decide in the coming weeks if the article will appear. Westborough’s ATM is scheduled for Saturday, March 28 at 1 p.m. at the Westborough High School.