FirstLight Power Resources, the owner of Candlewood Lake, announced last week that the firm is unable to adhere to the originally scheduled late-December/early-January start for the deep drawdown of Candlewood Lake – and officials of the Candlewood Lake Authority reacted swiftly and strongly.
“We have abundant historical data that shows drawdowns, when done correctly, are a very efficient and cost effective method for controlling the growth of invasive aquatic species such as Eurasian watermilfoil,” said Larry Marsicano, executive director of the C.L.A. “Yet the current management of FirstLight Power Resources seems to ignore this clear scientific evidence, as well as its licensed responsibility to fight the spread to this nuisance weed.”
For the past three decades, FirstLight and the predecessor organizations that owned Candlewood Lake implemented a control plan for Eurasian watermilfoil that alternated deep, ten-foot drawdowns with shallow, four-to-six-foot drawdowns on an every other year basis.
This plan of alternating deep and shallow drawdowns effectively controlled the spread of milfoil, according to data collected and analyzed by the C.L.A., while minimizing any possible negative impacts from the drawdowns. The plan earned the support of the C.L.A. and the CT Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection from the outset. Additionally, these two entities, along with representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency and FirstLight, comprise a Technical Committee that advises the management of FirstLight on the plans for drawdowns each year.
An ‘effective,’ not a quick, drawdown
However, to be effective, the drawdowns, whether deep or shallow, need to be done in a way that exposes the milfoil roots to subfreezing temperatures without protection of ice or snow that can act as insulation. And that hasn’t been the case on a consistent basis since the late 1990s, according to the C.L.A.
“Laboratory research conducted at Western Connecticut State University shows that the root cells of Eurasian watermilfoil are killed when exposed to temperatures of 23 degrees F or lower for 24 to 48 consecutive hours,” explained Mr. Marsicano.
There is no way to exactly predict when the coldest temperatures of the winter will occur in Western Connecticut. So the best course of action, to assure the maximum amount of the nuisance weeds are killed by the cold weather whenever it might occur, is to lower the Lake as soon as possible in December. This exposes the milfoil along the shoreline to cold weather during the entire winter.
In the not so distance past, according to Mr. Marsicano, the drawdowns adhered to this protocol and exposed the weeds to an entire winter of cold weather – roughly the 12-week period from December 15th to March 1st.f
First Light announced last week that it is unable to adhere to the originally scheduled late-December start of the deep, 10-foot drawdown due to unexpected delays it encountered in replacing the penstock connecting the Lake to its generating facility on the Housatonic River. As a result of that delay, several weeks of weed exposure to cold weather is now lost.
Fully-drained Lake soil
“One of reasons we believe a lengthy or 10-week drawdown is absolutely essential to an effective drawdown is to allow the newly exposed lake soil to drain completely,” said Mr. Marsicano. “If moisture remains in the soil, or new moisture is introduced via rain or snow storms, and an early freeze occurs, the soil may freeze at 32 degrees F – insulating it and preventing the exposure of roots to any subsequent ambient and root-killing temperatures of 23 degrees F.”
Additionally, prematurely raising the level of the Lake, before full exposure to the cold weather has a chance to take effect on the nuisance weeds, is just as counterproductive, according to Mr. Marsicano.
“Historically, the most effective drawdowns, whether shallow or deep, were ‘U’ shaped,” he said. “From the mid-80s thought the later part of the 90s the Lake water level reached drawdown depth by mid-December, which is the beginning of cold weather, and it stayed low though the end of February, the end of cold weather, exposing the roots of the nuisance weeds to the maximum amount of cold weather.”
“Unfortunately, some of the drawdowns in recent years have resembled more of a ‘V’ shape -- where the target depth was achieved only briefly, or perhaps not at all. And then the water level was quickly raised,” he continued.
“Our monitoring data and observations of weed growth over the years shows that those early drawdowns, which started early in the winter season and extended for the full duration of the winter, were far more effective in controlling the spread of Eurasian watermilfoil,” said Mr. Marsicano. “The more recent deep downdowns, which were of short duration and shallow depth, according to our records, have clearly not been as effective.”
Indifference to the scientific evidence
Even more troublesome is the seeming disregard on the part of FirstLight’s management to the accepted science regarding the drawdowns, according to Mr. Marsicano.
“The Technical Committee, which is described in FirstLight’s F.E.R.C. license as advisors to FirstLight, consists of experienced and knowledgeable representatives of the CT Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, and the Candlewood Lake Authority,” he said. In the past, environmental scientists within FirstLight participated as well, he added.
“All agreed, in a meeting just a few months ago, to the need for a full-length, deep drawdown, beginning in late December, to address the current weed situation, which everyone associated with Candlewood agrees is now extremely urgent,” he said. “Yet that agreement is being ignored.”
C.L.A. Chairman Howie Berger said FirstLight needed “to better balance its responsibility to assure the welfare of Lake for users with its right to generate revenues.”
“We understand that FirstLight is not utility but rather a for-profit entity, and that it has a right to make money from the generation of power,” he said. “We have no quarrel with that.”
But he also said the firm has a requirement via its license from F.E.R.C. to maintain the recreational value of the Lake for users -- and the two goals are not incompatible.
“If First Light would like to propose another, and hopefully better, path to controlling the spread of nuisance invasive aquatic species like Eurasian watermilfoil, we are very happy to listen and consider their proposed remedy,” said Mr. Berger.
“But we do not understand FirstLight’s disregard of the proven-successful approach of providing an effective drawdown depth of 418-420 feet for a duration of 45-60 days, which enables exposure of weeds to cold weather over the course of an entire winter -- without providing an equivalent substitute.”
“To accept FirstLight’s current approach to the drawdown abrogates our responsibility to advocate for and help protect the future welfare of the Lake,” he said. “Let’s not forget that the water in Candlewood Lake is the people’s water. The approach cannot be based solely on the need to generate power at the most favorable price. Our rights need to be protected.”
Possible ice damage, too
In addition to the possible accelerated spread of milfoil next summer, FirstLight’s delay in drawing down the Lake this winter has another potential adverse impact. It may also affect property owners with docks.
“Shoreline property owners and lakeside community groups with docks now face potential losses in the thousands of dollars this winter due to ice damage,” said Phyllis Schaer, a C.L.A. delegate from Sherman who is also the president of the Holiday Point Homeowners Association.
“Countless lakeshore property owners took FirstLight at their word concerning their plans for the start of the deep drawdown and they did not remove their docks in the fall,” she said. “Now, they face unanticipated costs for the immediate removal of their docks or potential losses in the thousands of dollar due to possible damage from ice.”
“The management of FirstLight should have alerted lakeside property owners and community groups to their plans to delay the deep drawdown well before now,” she said.
Scheduled deep drawdowns are also relied upon as an opportunity for seasonal maintenance, as they enable shoreline property owners to perform inspections, maintenance and repairs on seawalls, boathouses, docks and other lakeside structures.