Local treasure on the mend

First Posted: 8/11/2014

KINGSTON TWP. — Jack Hurst, 8, focused on holding his fishing pole still as his grandfather, Tony Alu, muttered about their two hopelessly tangled fishing lines.

The two were trying their luck from the shores of Frances Slocum Lake, where efforts to remedy water quality have started to gain traction after 20 years.

With one end of the fishing line pinched between his teeth, the 70-year-old Alu of Plains Township said he thinks the murky water might be responsible for the poor response at the other end of his fishing pole. As of late, the muskie, trout and walleye stocked at Frances Slocum haven’t been biting at his regular spot.

“I’ve caught them from here before,” Alu said with confidence last week. “There are huge fish out there.”

Around 1990, conservationists discovered popular Frances Slocum Lake at the state park had a big problem. Phosphorous, a nutrient that helps nuisance plants and algae thrive, was polluting the lake, slowly transforming it into a swampy mess.

Environmentally unfriendly farming practices led to unhealthy phosphorus levels, and the department has a handful of solutions — from simple to wildly complicated — it plans to use to reduce phosphorous levels.

Essentially, phosphorous is plant food that helps algae bloom. It creates that stringy, slimy slop that gets caught on boat oars and fishing hooks and clouds up the water.

Sediment carrying dead leaves and animal waste running into the lake releases phosphorous as it decays.

While treating a lake water-quality problem at one of the region’s most popular recreation destinations, the state park’s new manager, Brian Taylor, 28, says the hardest part is behind them.

Through partnerships with nonprofit groups, the Luzerne Conservation District and state agencies, projects are under way to restore the lake to healthy nutrient levels, Taylor said.

Phosphorous levels have not yet reached code-red status, Taylor said, but complacency will mean disaster.

“It needs its help now,” he said. “If we don’t do anything with it, it will be in dire shape quicker than we can expect.”

Some treatment plans already have started to take shape. Last year the Bureau of State Parks paid for the installation of floating islands, lush with plants, to absorb excess phosphorous. And officials have mapped out a treatment plan that needs the funding to push it through.

“I think the biggest challenge is over,” Taylor said. “Just how long it took to get everything in order, everyone on the same page and to get the partners that we’re working with … to realize that this is a big deal, that this lake does need help to get back to where it needs to be.

“Now that we have everyone on board and together, we can proceed.”

2010 action plan

In 2010, the Luzerne Conservation District commissioned a study and implementation plan that laid the groundwork for restoration. After it received the state Environmental Protection Authority’s stamp of approval, Frances Slocum Lake looks like a much more attractive source for conservation grant money.

The Stephen Foster Lake in Bradford County’s Mt. Pisgah State Park has such a plan, Fawn Kearns, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Water Resources manager, said.

“And that lake is pretty much restored,” Kearns said of Stephen Foster Lake. “This kind of plan really doesn’t exist anywhere else in the state.”

The Frances Slocum Lake plan recommends a variety of steps, the first of which started last year with the floating islands positioned at either end of the horseshoe-shaped lake.

DCNR has applied for a $300,000 grant for a first wave of treatment. Kearns said park officials likely won’t know if the treatment plans will get funded until next year’s grant cycle.

If awarded, the grant will pay for:

• A rain garden filtration system to collect runoff from parking lots and roads before it enters the lake. Like the floating islands, the rain garden would absorb excess nutrients stopping them from reaching the water.

• Two more floating islands, larger than the ones now in place, to be equipped with solar-powered aeration devices. Aerating the water, similar to a fish tank bubbler, prevents temperature layers from forming, adds oxygen and slows algae growth. It also helps the plants aboard the islands grow stronger.

• A feasibility study to see about aerating the entire lake. This likely would include an expensive system of underwater piping and large compressors to continually pump air throughout the lake.

• A study to find out which areas of the lake would benefit most from dredging. Sediment may sit at the bottom of the lake releasing phosphorous over time. Dredging is an effective, albeit expensive, way to fix that.

The plan identifies past farming as the largest source of the plant food. Looking forward, it says more new homes being built in the few square miles around the lake threaten to send more runoff into the Abraham’s Creek Watershed, which culminates in Frances Slocum Lake.

Gauging changes

As part of the plan, conservationists wish to continue monitoring the lake’s progress, again, relying on collaboration and some grant money that remains unsecured.

July was Lakes Awareness Month, and the Department of Environmental Protection used the season to take annual samples.

Sherrill Leap, a department marine biologist, spent a day last month on the water with King’s College intern, Samantha Jensen.

The data they collected will be logged and used for reference when considering future land development around the lake, Leap said.

If the phosphorous and nitrogen (another nutrient that feeds nuisance plant life) are found to be too high, the department can put restrictions on future sewage discharge permits and can recommend new best-management practices for runoff that happens upstream in the watershed.

Since DCNR has no jurisdiction over what happens outside the state park, DEP’s findings can empower groups like the Conservation District and other organizations to find better ways to treat runoff.

Leap said its collaborations, like the one with Jensen, help young college students gain valuable experience in how the department works, experience they can carry with them for the rest of their careers.

Until Jensen and another intern arrived this year, the department’s northeast regional office has had no college students for about eight years, Leap said, and Jensen was a welcome companion in more ways than one.

“In lake surveys, I have been blown to the far end of a lake one too many times,” Leap said. “And it is scary to be out with no one else around and no one to miss you until 6 p.m.”

During testing, Jensen and Leap found water temperature profiles were about the same as they were 22 years ago, however it was the water visibility that declined since 1993.

A sign of blooming algae, the researchers could only see about 2.9 feet through the surface of the water. To compare, in 1993 they could see 3.5 feet through the water’s surface.

But it would seem the water visibility can fluctuate dramatically. One year earlier, in 1992, visibility was only 1.4 feet through the surface.

Further findings from their testing were not available pending lab results.

Recreation destination

Virginia Kelley waited in the minivan as her husband, Norman, combed through berry bushes at the edge of one Frances Slocum’s parking lots filling a bag with blackberries. The campers were heading toward the hiking trails when they decided to stop and pick some for the next day’s breakfast.

With a keen eye, Norman Kelley pointed to bushes bearing clusters of fresh berries, and a few raspberry bushes as well.

The Kelleys were traveling home to Virginia after visiting family in Massachusetts, and, with nothing to hurry them along, stopped to camp for three days. Originally from Shippensburg, they had never been to Frances Slocum, but they had a few reasons for camping there.

“We chose this place simply because right now it’s not overly crowded,” Norman Kelley said. “It’s quiet. it’s peaceful. The campsites are beautiful.”

Through grant allocations from Gov. Tom Corbett’s Enhance Penn’s Woods initiative Taylor and his staff are making a few upgrades around the park that will help keep it attractive for travelers like the Kelleys.

Right now, crews are mending sewer lines throughout the park.

Home to Agnes victims

Between 1972 and 1974, Frances Slocum was host to about 280 families after the flood brought by Hurricane Agnes forced many out of their homes.

The extra strain on the park’s sewer system four decades ago accelerated wear and tear, and now it must be repaired.

The Patrick J. Solano Environmental Education Center, which is down near the western leg of the lake, is to get an addition within a year or so that will include a large conference room and office space for park employees.

More than 15,000 people already visit the small center each year, most of them school-aged children, to hear presentations from environmental educator Kathy Kelchner and others.

While improvements are being made all around, Taylor and his team are not without challenges. He said this year they never found a vendor to sell concessions at the pool, and it has been difficult to staff the pool’s lifeguard tower. Anyone interested in either should contact the park office, he said.

For Alu and Jack, it’s not the pool and snack stand that keeps them coming back. The fresh air and quiet place to cast their lines seems to be enough.

“It’s the only place I fish,” Alu said of the lake. “It’s close. I’m not interested in catching big fish, mostly just pass the time.”

And with that, he threw up his hands, which were still smudged with soil and worm guts, and retrieved nail trimmers from his tackle box to snip the tangled fishing line.

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