Before the Bartlett Pond report was in the town already had a DMEA staff member that had been trained to do preliminary screenings for cyanobacteria (using fluoroscopy) and on the day the state informed town officials of the problem that staff member visited 8 ponds to check for cyanobacteria.
PLYMOUTH – The numbers were alarming. When testing a pond for cyanobacteria a level of 70 parts per milliliter is usually enough to consider closing it to swimming.
Bartlett Pond tested at 450 parts per milliliter.
Usually the bacteria are visible to the eye. This particular species discovered in both Bartlett Pond and Bartlett Brook was nearly transparent, except under the microscope.
And when the Department of Marine and Environmental Affairs (DMEA) sprang into action – arriving at the pond within hours of first notification carrying caution tape and hand-made signs that indicated the pond and connected stream were closed until further notice – they found a large number of children splashing about in the shallow but swiftly moving water.
“We used a PDF from the state to make up the signs quickly, post them," DMEA Director David Gould said. "We sent emails to White Horse Beach residents, used the beach associations to reach as many people as we could, as fast as possible.
“Mark Brulport and myself went to White Horse Beach and found somewhere between 16 to 20 kids in the brook,” Gould told the Selectmen. “We tried not to alarm them, but we had to get them out of the water and post signs that said 'unsafe for swimming'.”
Fortunately there was no panic. But was the town unprepared?
“This is a somewhat new issue,” Gould admitted, “and the testing is fairly complicated and relatively expensive but we’re doing what we can to catch up.”
Before the Bartlett Pond report was in the town already had a DMEA staff member that had been trained to do preliminary screenings for cyanobacteria (using fluoroscopy) and on the day the state informed town officials of the problem that staff member visited eight ponds to check for cyanobacteria.
Bartlett Pond wasn’t on her list though, and even if it were, there would have been a delay.
“The fluoroscopy allows you to see the cells but not do a count,” Gould explained to selectmen last week. If they find the cells they can then have the testing done.
In the immediate aftermath of the discovery of the bacteria in Bartlett Pond however, what the town had been doing was, from most perspectives, insufficient.
So working with the selectmen and DMEA officials Public Health Department Director Nate Horwitz-Willis has now defined several short and long-term actions that, provided funding is available, the town will undertake.
“The overarching long-term goal is to reduce or eliminate any potential risk to the public from any toxic cyanobacteria, pollutants, or other contaminants produced from the Bartlett Pond that may enter its Brook,” Horwitz-Willis said this week, “by determining what future funded actions to implement for the White Horse Beach Management plan from both a public health and environmental perspective.”
That’s easier said than done of course.
Horwitz-Willis has already said that septic systems along the pond, along with nitrates from lawn fertilizers, are a likely factor in the cyanobacteria outbreak but to get residents cooperation on those issues is never easy.
That’s why they are forming a White Horse Beach working group, comprised of a majority of residents, to “get consensus on future, long-term solutions to these problems,” Horwitz-Willis said last week.
In the short-term, Horwitz-Willis said, he has four specific goals.
• First to “educate the public about toxic cyanobacteria and what its presence means for their health.”
• Second, to secure the funding for an “ADA compliant pedestrian foot-bridge that connects both sides of White Horse Beach across the Bartlett Pond.”
• Third, to foster more community engagement with the White Horse Beach residents to begin addressing and resolving immediate and long-term environmental and public health issues.
• And finally to hire experts in the field to conduct a long-range study to understand how the area is being impacted by natural and man-made activity and help determine long-term best courses of action.
Follow Frank Mand on Twitter @frankmandOCM.