Don't come in, the water's fine at Lake Massabesic: Experts agree it helps the water supply

New Hampshire Union Leader
May 26. 2018 10:35PM
Gerald Corbett of Pelham leaps from his boat Wednesday to avoid any part of his body touching the water, one of the rules at Lake Massabesic in Auburn. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

A number of signs give advice and warnings at Severance Beach in Auburn on Friday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

Charlie Moore travels to lakes and rivers all over the world to film his nationally syndicated fishing and outdoors shows. But a few times a month, the Chester resident drops a line a little closer to home, at Lake Massabesic. It's quiet on weekdays, and while Moore has made a living off of his loud personality and "Mad Fisherman" moniker, he enjoys the tranquility. That doesn't mean, however, that he understands or intends to follow some of the rules that help keep it so quiet.

You can drive motorboats on Lake Massabesic and you can fish there, but since the 1940s there has been a ban on swimming or making any bodily contact with the water. Manchester Water Works takes the rule seriously and employs a small group of armed officers deputized by the Auburn Police Department to enforce it.

"You travel all over the world and go to different areas and most of it is restrictions regarding jet skis at different times or weekend rules to keep the traffic down," Moore said while on a recent trip to the lake. "I can't even put my finger on a place where you can put your boat on but you can't put a finger in the water."

"You cannot tell me that people swimming here in the lake are going to affect the drinking water when you see 747s flying overhead to Manchester airport," he said.

But water treatment experts agree that humans pose a greater threat to water supplies like Lake Massabesic than motor oil or pollution from planes. The reason is simple, if a bit gross.

"Accidental fecal release," said Sarah Pillsbury, administrator of the Department of Environmental Service's Drinking Water and Groundwater Bureau.
Charlie Moore pulls away from the dock at the Lake Massabesic boat launch in Auburn on Wednesday. He's filming his TV show there this week. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Water fuels tourism

It's an unfortunate but unavoidable truth that wherever humans go their waste follows. When it comes to New Hampshire's lakes, it means that regulators have had to curtail one of the state's biggest economic engines out of an abundance of caution.

A 2007 study commissioned by the New Hampshire Lakes, Rivers, Streams and Ponds Partnership estimated that freshwater fishing, boating and swimming generated nearly $379 million in sales for Granite State businesses the previous summer, $134 million in household income, and supported 5,991 jobs. Swimming revenue made up the largest chunk of that.

In total, the activities accounted for more than a quarter of all summer spending in New Hampshire, according to the study.

The rules allowing motorboats but prohibiting bodily contact (boaters are instructed to wear rubber boots and gloves) are contradictory and a nod to the competing interests, admitted David Miller, water supply administrator for Manchester Water Works. If it was up to him, there would be no human activity on Lake Massabesic, which provides 18.5 million gallons of drinking water per day to more than 159,000 people in seven communities.

Manchester's water treatment system is rated among the best in the nation and it can be hard for some residents and visitors to understand the need for contact restrictions given that current techniques are extremely effective at eliminating human-borne pathogens like E. Coli bacteria, typhoid fever and Giardia.

"We get enough activity on the lake as it is. If we open up to swimming it would be a nightmare from a water quality perspective," Miller said, adding "Can we treat it? Of course. If you throw enough money at anything you can fix problems. But is that fair to our ratepayers?"

The rules vary for lakes and ponds that supply drinking water in New Hampshire.

On bodies of water like Dole Reservoir in Claremont or Hanover Reservoir, all human activities are essentially prohibited.

Lake Winnepesaukee, meanwhile, is a major summer attraction with few restrictions over most of its area. Certain sections of Paugus Bay, near the town of Laconia's intakes, are off limit to swimming, though.

"Bacteria-wise, nothing would ever get to somebody's house," said Seth Nuttelman, Laconia's water superintendent. The swimming restrictions are simply "an abundance of caution."
Mitchell Suskes, left, and Matthew Demanche, both of Nashua, trailer their boat after spending the morning fishing at Lake Massabesic in Auburn on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Outbreaks, perceptions

The fear of human-borne bacterial contamination isn't without merit. While water regulators couldn't point to any recent disease or bacterial outbreaks caused by human contact with water supplies, there are historical examples.

In 1959, Keene's water supply was contaminated, said Robin Collins, a civil engineering professor and director of UNH's New England Water Treatment Technology Assistance Center. Hundreds of residents came down with gastroenteritis and there were 14 cases, including one fatal, of typhoid fever. Public health workers traced the outbreak back to an infected worker at a logging camp who relieved himself in the watershed.

Water treatment technology existed at the time that could have prevented the contamination and it was quickly put in place in Keene after the incident.

Even so, Collins questioned whether most water customers today would be comforted by the thought of state-of-the-art treatment systems when confronted with the mental image of accidental fecal release.

A survey administered as part of the 2007 freshwater economic impact study reinforced that notion. The study concluded that 69 percent of people who visited the state's lakes, rivers and ponds would do so less often if they perceived a drop in water quality or purity.
Gerald Corbett of Pelham approaches the boat ramp at Lake Massabesic in Auburn on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

"Public perception is very, very important in a drinking water supply," Collins said. "That's why, even if the risk is low, you need to take precautions to ensure that the public is confident they can go to the faucet and get clean water."

There's more than one way to foul the water, though. Bird and animal droppings are a much larger source of contaminants in freshwater than human waste, and wildlife doesn't care about the regulations.

Some communities have tried to reduce the number of birds, particularly Canada geese, flocking around their water supplies - by putting out decoy predator statues, for example - with mixed results. Certain beaches are still overrun and water utilities have to work hard to prevent the droppings from entering the water supply.

As off-putting as that may sound, Miller said water utilities go to great lengths to keep their sources clean and customers shouldn't be concerned by the animals.

Manchester Water Works owns more than 8,000 acres of land around Lake Massabesic, specifically so that it can control what does and doesn't touch its shores. That control allowed the utility to enforce strict rules requiring horseback riders to equip their equines with "bun bags," which collect droppings, on all but five of the 50 miles surrounding the lake.

The strict rules helped Manchester Water Works rank fifth in the nation for taste and purity of water at the 2011 American Water Works conference. It is one of just a handful of water suppliers to have received an excellence in water treatment award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"You turn on the faucet and out it comes and you don't think about it," Miller said. "We think about it a lot."

EnvironmentHealthOutdoorsPublic SafetyAuburnManchester

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