Candlewood Lake at 85

A time to reflect and re-commit

Birthdays are typically joyous occasions -- times of reflection, celebration, and hope.

And so it was five years ago when Candlewood Lake marked its 80th birthday. The community joined to celebrate its rich past, reflect on the lake's health, consider additional protective measures, and share hopes for its future.

Noted local poet Alfred Colo offered a birthday tribute to the lake which ended in sober conclusion: "Lest we attend its wake, We must befriend our Lake..."

Back then, the lake's challenges were more manageable, the outlook positive, and there was cheer aplenty.

On Sept. 28, 85 candles will flicker for the occasion, but with heartfelt concern rather than celebration being the order of the day.

Eurasian milfoil blankets much of the shallows, crowding out local plant species while strangling navigation and swimming.

With continued building within the watershed and insufficient sensitivity for our environment's vulnerability, storm water pollution and blue-green algae pose further threats as fertilizers, chemicals and debris wash in.

Poised just outside Candlewood's gates, bivalve barbarians known as zebra mussels threaten to invade, risking irreparable harm to the lake's health and ecology. Inevitably, other invasive species will try to hitchhike through the gauntlet and will likely succeed -- if attempted under today's welcoming conditions.

These are challenging and concerning times indeed. Parties charged with the lake's welfare are stretched and strained. Dedicated human and financial resources are slim. Weather conditions aggravate the risks.

Momentum is with the marauders. Invasive species are becoming pervasive -- and understandably so. State agency bias is toward open lake access despite these inherent and uncontrolled risks.

Our perimeter defenses are not enough. Insufficient manpower often leaves our boat ramps unmanned, so essential inspections do not occur. There is no provision for decontaminating vessels.

Localized breeding grounds of zebra mussels have not been neutralized. Needed legislative and regulatory measures are woefully inadequate. Multimedia educational programs and ongoing reinforcement are less than visible.

Bottom line: Despite noble efforts by our limited lake management team, we seem to be placing faith on "a wing and a prayer" and the odds are clearly on the side of the aggressors.

Importantly, those with the most at stake -- lake-area community residents and users -- while distressed by the milfoil, otherwise seem disengaged as these life-changing risks mount around us.

We have come to expect the lake is here for our pleasure and will somehow dispel all villains and care for itself. Unfortunately, the handwriting is clear: it can't, and without our thoughtful intervention, it won't.

If we are indeed to celebrate future birthdays and avoid attending our lake's "wake," it's time to cultivate a lake-sensitive ethic, assume responsibility for Candlewood's welfare, register our concerns with elected officials, step up to volunteer our time and funds, and muster the will to protect and preserve this "Crown Jewel" in our midst. Otherwise the outlook is clear and the lake's destiny is preordained.

Fortunately, winds of change are on the horizon.

A modest fund has been established at the state level to control invasive species incursions.

Energy expended in assessing milfoil control alternatives has yielded a grant application to fund introduction of sterile grass carp into Candlewood's waters, supported by our five municipalities and FirstLight.

Recent consulting reviews have reinforced research and actions by our lake authority in assessing water quality issues.

Recently, a team of lake-area representatives visited Lake George in New York to understand preventive measures in place there to stop invasive invaders in their tracks.

Consider what you can personally do to ensure our lake's ongoing health and vitality. With your added support and commitment, the future can be bright.

Jim McAlister is chairman of the Candlewood Watershed Initiative and a resident of New Fairfield.