What’s Lurking Under the Water?

Richard Mayne investigates the mysteries of Worcester's bodies of water and what exactly is putting them in serious jeopardy.

By Richard Mayne

Juan Gomez, a local fisherman in his late 20s, stands up in his inflatable boat, big enough to fit two people, per the manufacturer’s suggestions. However, with Gomez as slender as the fishing rod he’s about to cast for the first time this Saturday morning in mid-April, his boat routinely fits him and two of his buddies comfortably and does so practically every weekend. 

“Man, I used to walk down here all the time. Every day, during the summer. It will never get skunked,” he says. “Too big.”

I met Gomez five years ago through a mutual friend; he was the third member of our triumvirate that morning. The two of them are best friends and roommates. They’ve been fishing in Coes Reservoir for most of their lives. 

“Remember we saw a shopping cart in here one year?” Gomez asks him, biting off the excess string on his bait. He makes sure the half an inch nylon string ends up back in the boat.  “Never throw string in the water,” he says. Within a few moments, Gomez takes out a pack of Marlboro Lights and lights one. 

“Yeah, ok. ‘Don’t pollute,’ says the smoker,” he says, chuckling and with a hint of facetiousness. “Hey, at least, I’m not the guy who throws these in the water.” 

Gomez looks over the side of his boat and remains fixated on the water, seemingly staring into the water’s soul, wondering what’s lurking beneath. 

Coes Reservoir

The City’s senior environmental analyst, Jacquelyn Burmeister, has an answer to Mr. Gomez’s question. An ever-evolving and expanding answer, but an answer nonetheless. 

“Worcester’s lakes and ponds are facing the stress of living in an urban environment. Some of the challenges they are facing include invasive aquatic plants and animals, nutrient pollution, cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins, and litter,” she explains.

Burmeister’s position within the Lakes and Ponds Program provides her with the opportunity to measure and interpret environmental conditions of Worcester’s recreational lakes and ponds, commonly referred to as blue Spaces. Generally, this is done for the purpose of protecting public health and recreation. She spends much of her time on the water bodies collecting samples and analyzing them, along with working with residents to understand their concerns.

For Juan Gomez, a Worcester resident, his biggest concern is the worst possible event to occur for a fishing spot: “getting skunked,” a loosely-used expression with multiple meanings, uses, and understandings. It’s fishing connotation is when a fishing spot is rendered entirely unavailable, due to what are broadly referred to as “weeds.” However, these are actually nuisance and invasive aquatic plants, and they are a serious problem for the city of Worcester’s blue spaces. 

Aquatic plants, known as macrophytes, bring a multitude of problems when they become too numerous in a blue space, and can disrupt boating experiences by clogging propellers, overtaking swimming areas, and crowding out other species, thereby reducing biodiversity. According to the City’s guide on these plants, an invasive plant is, “A plant that is not native, or did not originally come from the area. These plants become nuisances because their natural constraints, such as predators or environmental limitations, do not exist in their new home, allowing them to multiply at a rate much faster than normal.” 

The City specifically recommends a few preventative measures. Before launching your boat into a new body of water, check your boat for weeds and or debris. Many people have introduced nuisance and invasive plants to blue spaces without even realizing it, simply because people aren’t aware of how they spread. Never empty water from a home aquarium into a blue space: the small plants and even the fish from these aquariums can be extremely problematic to the lake or pond the water is dumped in. Pick up after your pet whenever possible, and cut down on the use of lawn fertilizers. Both are responsible for large amounts of nutrient runoff when it rains.

According to the Massachusetts Lakes and Ponds Programs, there are 14 current invasive species found throughout the state, with a further three species listed as potential invasive species. The city of Worcester specifically lists three nuisance and invasive plants as immediate threats and have taken steps to rectify their invasions. 

One of these plants is the water chestnut. Described by the City’s guide to nuisance and invasive plants as “Waxy leaves [that] have white flowers and form dense mats at the water’s surface…[this] plant drops a sharp nut onto the lake bottom that can survive for up to 20 years, even if exposed to freezing conditions.” The water chestnut has multiplied rapidly in Coes Reservoir. As a means of combating the spread of the plant, the City has implemented a regiment of mechanical and manual harvesting in order to remove the plant from the root and prevent new seeds from falling—literally up-rooting the problem. Annual winter drawdowns help control some species of invasive plants by exposing the ground where the plants take root, essentially starving the plant. 

The second of these plants is called the European naiad, described by the guide as a “submerged plant that grows in branched clusters from a long stem…[its] seeds may be unaffected by herbicides.” Recently, the European naiad has become a problem in Indian Lake. 

The last of these plants is the Eurasian milfoil, a plant found on almost every continent that has “long, slender, submerged stems that can form dense mats that inhibit recreation and crowd out fish and other plant populations,” as per the guide. 

Nuisance and invasive plants are only one problem facing Worcester’s blue spaces. This is something that Jackie Burmeister understands fully.

In 2017, the Lakes and Ponds Program developed a monitoring program to evaluate key indicators of lake health across the largest recreational water bodies. Two years later in 2019, the City finished their third year collecting data. Burmeister admits that the size of the program is limited by their budget and personnel, but she remains adamant that the Lakes and Ponds Program is committed to realizing a more holistic view of water quality in Worcester. One of the ways this view can be realized is through the work of citizen scientists and volunteers who are willing to take action—specifically in the City’s monitoring of cyanobacteria, accomplished through the Worcester Cyanobacteria Monitoring Collaborative. 

Burmeister describes the collaborative as “a group of Worcester County residents and citizen scientists who are trained in the collection of water samples and identification of cyanobacteria, or blue green algae.” 

Cyanobacteria occurs naturally in the City’s waters and are not ordinarily cause for concern. Because they are bacteria, many of the organisms are unicellular. However, what can become harmful to humans and pets is a cyanobacterial bloom. This is when cyanobacteria produce a harmful level of cyanotoxin. Blooms are able to form in slow-moving, warm waters that are rich in nutrients, especially phosphorus. Many of the nutrients that cyanobacterial blooms need to survive come from fertilizer runoff and other sources of nutrient pollution. Worcester’s geography and industrial history are also factors in how individual blue spaces are affected by nutrient pollution. 

When asked if he’d ever consider volunteering to collect water samples for the City, Juan Gomez asked, in not so many words, what would he be doing? 

Indian Lake

Dr. Jamie Remillard, a citizen scientist, has an answer. Remillard is just one of many citizen scientists and volunteers who are part of the Worcester Cyanobacteria Monitoring Collaborative. Volunteers come from all walks of life and vary in age and biology experience.

“First, you attend a training session in April,” said Remillard, an English professor at Worcester State University. “You’ll learn how to collect a water sample and how to analyze the sample under a microscope.” 

I asked myself when the last time I used a microscope would have been. My most recent memory of using one came from Mr. Spinazola’s seventh grade science class at Forest Grove in Worcester, analyzing one of my own hair follicles plucked from my eyebrow.   

“Don’t worry, Jackie [Burmeister] won’t let you go out and collect samples without knowing what you’re doing first,” joked Remillard, maybe noticing the look of uncertainty on my face. “You’re assigned your own pond to monitor. Then, one Saturday every month, from April until September, you collect a sample and bring it to the Blackstone Heritage Visitor Center to analyze and monitor the sample. Simple, painless, and you’re doing something pretty important.” 

In Remillard’s case, the Worcester Cyanobacteria Monitoring Collaborative presented an interesting prospect for both the City and Remillard personally, along with another citizen scientist named Hannah. The two specifically asked to monitor a pond that hadn’t gotten any prior attention. They were assigned Burncoat Pond, a body of water the two would refer to as their “orphan pond.”

“There was a unique opportunity to provide initial information that was necessary for the collaborative and the City, to begin monitoring the water at Burncoat Pond, a place that hadn’t had any data collected from it, and therefore not much was known about [the pond],” said Remillard. She reports seeing a significant change over the course over the summer. “What was more interesting and I think important,” she continued, “ is that we understood we were seeing something of consequence. We may not have known just how consequential it was, but we knew there was something bigger going on. A larger issue was at play.”

When asked about the consequences of cyanobacteria in the City’s lakes and ponds, Remillard brought up an important point.

“One of the things of consequence, in dealing with cyanobacteria, is what we don’t know about it,” she says. “What triggers cyanobacterial blooms to become toxic is unknown. Because there is an element of the unknown at play, it makes the inquiry worth it.” 

This is a sentiment with which Burmeister agrees. 

“Citizen volunteers expand the scope of what [the] local government can monitor and help us answer some bigger questions,” says Burmeister. “There is a lot we still don’t understand about cyanobacteria: what causes blooms to occur in each waterbody, when they will produce toxins, why some generalities are present while others are not, and how the presence of other organisms affect their density.”  

Burmeister and the rest of the Worcester Cyanobacteria Monitoring Collaborative unveiled the results of this past summer’s data collection and algal monitoring on March 4, 2020, at the aforementioned Blackstone Heritage Visitor Center. The event was called The State of the Lakes and provided a great opportunity to learn about Worcester’s blue spaces. 

“Education is required for action to be meaningful,” says Burmeister. “We try to create opportunities for people to learn about these connections and how they can take meaningful actions to reduce negative impacts on our waterways. However, we need people to feel like these resources are worthwhile to protect before they will go out of their way to make changes to their behavior.” 

Author’s Note: For those interested in becoming a citizen scientist, or volunteering, there will be a training session held on April 22, 2020 at 5:45pm at Bancroft School in Worcester. No experience in biology is required.

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