Coventry Lake Courtesy: Debby Zeppa

Imagine feeling the warm rays of sunlight as you lie on the dock of a pristine lake. You look out onto the surface and see nothing but sparkling blue water.

While this picturesque scene is the reality for some lake goers, the residents of Coventry, CT, experienced something entirely different this past summer. For the first time, Coventry Lake experienced an abundance of cyanobacteria, a photosynthetic microorganism,  resulting in a two-week closure and a public health warning issued by the Eastern Highland Health District.

“Public swim areas were shut down …you were told that you were at risk if you got in the water,” said Debby Zeppa of Coventry Lake Advisory & Monitoring Committee.

Cyanobacteria blooms can cause a range of symptoms, including mild rash and irritation to the liver or signs of nervous system dysfunction. More extreme exposure can even result in death. Eric Trott, Director of Planning and Development for the town of Coventry, told me, “Inhalation of cyanobacteria causes damage to lungs and other organs, so even standing near the lake can put an individual at risk.”

The 2017 National Lake Assessment found the algal toxin microcystin in 21% of lakes across the country. This deadly toxin threatens human health and kills pets, fish, and birds exposed to water bodies experiencing cyanobacteria blooms.

Lakes are an essential resource for all of us. These freshwater bodies provide drinking water and habitats for fisheries and recreation. They offer aesthetic value and are a tourist attraction for many American communities, Coventry included. Some lakeshore residents have experienced a 30-50% decline in property value across multiple states due to harmful algal blooms and cyanobacteria.

The pursuit of clean lakes is not only a matter of public health but an effort to combat the effects of climate change, as increasing levels of algae in freshwaters also contribute to methane emissions. Although each lake is different, they are all connected. Coventry’s bloom contributes to the more daunting issue of global warming; “It’s not just Connecticut; it’s global,” explained Zeppa.

Skye Embray

Although the Coventry Lake advisory had the resources to monitor and conduct testing of the lake leading to the termination of the health warning, not all communities have the same experience. Elsewhere, concerned residents wonder if they will be forced to cancel their plans to spend their summer on their local lake. These algal events leave people questioning: “what caused the bloom, and how do we address it?” 

We do have the framework for answers. Such questions are addressed through the Clean Lakes Program, propagated by Section 314 of the Clean Water Act. Initially established in 1972, this program historically provided state grants to help study and monitor lakes to manage and restore water quality. The Clean Lakes Program provided over $145 million in grants to states from 1976 through the mid-1990s. The grants established statewide water quality assessment programs and significant lake, watershed, and water quality restoration projects. This program specifically funded in-lake remediation to address sedimentation, aquatic invasive plants, and cyanobacteria blooms.

But here’s the problem. The Clean Lakes Program was reauthorized in 1994 without funding, which means there has been no money for the program in over 25 years. Currently, Connecticut lakes and lakes all around the country are vulnerable to algal and cyanobacteria blooms and other types of degradation. Instead of directly allocating money to address lake issues, the EPA encourages states to use a mere 5% of a grant from another program: the Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program. To make matters worse, the EPA does not support funding for in-lake management activities unless it fits the requirements of the Nonpoint Source Management, which does not directly address lake restoration through in-lake management activities.  

 The answer to protecting our lakes is simple: renewed funding for the Clean Lakes Program. The EPA already laid the groundwork back in 1976 by establishing a system specifically designed to help states manage lakes effectively. Congress must reauthorize funds for this program and increase the annual appropriations. 

 States need specific funding for in-lake restoration activities and protection measures that prevent healthy lakes from algal blooms and other threats like the one in Coventry this summer. Securing money for Section 314 funding is a win for lakes, which is also a win for communities across the nation.

Skye Embray is a senior at Trinity College, majoring in Environmental Science and Public Policy.