Fifty Shades of Green

China Lake Aerial
Photo credit: Maine Lakes Society and LightHawk pilots Steve Williams & Jim Knowles

Five generations of my family have had the privilege of creating summer memories on China Lake.  One of my enduring childhood memories of the lake is that it turned pea-soup green every summer.  Known as “China Lake Syndrome,” the annual algal blooms were the result of too much development too fast, leading to the leaching of nutrients into the lake.  Too many nutrients (phosphorus) created an imbalance in the lake’s bacteria levels and the result was algal blooms – or a green lake.  (For a more scientific explanation of algal blooms check out Maine DEP’s discussion of cyanobacteria at

A July 15, 1991 article in the Lewiston Sun Journal makes mention of the so-called “China Lake Syndrome,” using China Lake’s experience as a warning to readers about the damage done to a lake when we allow run-off from farms and lawn fertilizer and leaking septic tanks to pollute our lakes.  Indeed, the title of this 1991 article is “Day-to-day Actions Can Damage Maine Lakes.”  Included in this article are tips on caring for Maine’s nearly 6,000 lakes and ponds, such as not spraying herbicide on submerged vegetation, and not bathing in the lake.  Today these points seem obvious, but I remember my father used to clean up in the lake with a bar of Lava soap, and the two generations of women in my family that preceded me routinely shampooed their hair in the lake.

Today, after a great deal of research and effort, China Lake is slowly mending, or at least not getting worse. This morning the China Lake Association (formed in 1987) held its annual meeting.   Although listed last on the agenda for today’s meeting, I would bet that the discussion of the Alewife Restoration Initiative ( was the hot topic of the morning.  The scientific premise behind alewife restoration is that young alewives will improve China’s water quality as a natural consequence of their diet: alewives eat phosphorus as they move from the lake to the ocean.  Removing excess phosphorus means decreasing the severity of algal blooms.  The goal, then, is to create an environment (through dam removal) that will allow for alewives to return to China Lake by the hundreds of thousands (nearly one million, actually).

The near death of China Lake did not occur over night, and it is not an uncommon problem.  The Belgrade Lakes, a chain of seven lakes and ponds in Central Maine, are being closely monitored in light of a 40 year trend of declining water quality. Last July, the Belgrade Lakes Conservation Alliance, the Maine Lakes Resource Center, Colby College and the landowner associations on each of the seven lakes joined forces to address the continuing decline in water quality.  (See for details.)  See an interactive map hosted by the Maine Lakes Resource Center ( for a look at data collected as part of this initiative.

I take my hat off to the people across our state who have volunteered  time to help watch over “their” lakes and ponds.  Interested in getting involved on a lake association in your area?  Even if you do not live on the lake or pond, I would be shocked if your interest in getting involved was unappreciated.  Go to for an alphabetical list of lake associations in Maine.

Water-lilies and pond weed (Or, Is That a Giraffe in Your Lake?)

On Wednesday night this week I spent two hours in a high school biology lab learning to identify invasive milfoil.  Yes, this was as dull as it sounds.  And also vitally important. Maine depends on healthy lakes for a healthy economy, and native plants and animals depend on healthy lakes for their lives.

The instructors mentioned in passing that lakes in other states are so thoroughly infested with invasive (non-native) aquatic plants that the people there have given up on trying to prevent infestations – because they have already lost this battle – and instead they MOW – yes, I said mow – their lakes, and take similar startling measures to cope with the fact that plants that do not belong in our ecosystem have nonetheless made their way here.  So what?  Well, non-native species of plants and animals do not have natural predators, which means they can go wild, grow wild, run amok, overrun, overtake and choke out the life of native species.  (This is a gross oversimplification but I’m only a citizen scientist, after all, and besides I bet your eyes glazed over three sentences ago.)

Thursday morning, armed with scant knowledge of how to identify the type of milfoil that has taken root in at least one part of Annabessacook Lake, I trotted myself down to the water, ready to look for trouble.  Okay, who am I kidding?  The sun was out and the water was calm and I was itching to see what I could find through the lens of my Nikon.  Happily for my budding efforts at learning to distinguish invasive milfoil from native look-a-likes – or the bad plants from the good plants – the water was clear to a depth of four feet.

I’ve attached some of my photos.  The startling giraffe-neck looking thing is the root system for some of the many lily pads that camp out in my muck.