Local nonprofit holds beach cleanup, aims to rid Breezy Lake of milfoil

The Upper Dam Pond Conservation Association, a local nonprofit founded by a group of Coventry residents last summer, hosted a beach cleanup at Breezy Lake Saturday morning. 

COVENTRY — On the eastern side of Coventry, a small body of water has long been a favorite spot of swimmers, kayakers and anglers, alike. But with aquatic invasives threatening its future, a group of residents is on a mission to restore the lake they love by keeping the troublesome plants at bay. 

“We wanted to save the lake,” Tom Pendergast, vice president of the newfound Upper Dam Pond Conservation Association, said during a beach cleanup event over the weekend. 

Like many bodies of water across southern New England, Upper Dam Pond is plagued by aquatic invasive plants. Tangled among the native lilies that dot its surface, variable milfoil has begun to choke the pond, known locally as Breezy Lake. 

The Upper Dam Pond Conservation Association was founded by a group of neighbors last August in response to the problem.

“We’re a community of people who have one thing in common: the lake,” said Don Antonelli, president of the nonprofit, standing Saturday at the water’s edge, beach rake in hand. “When you get a bunch of people working together for one cause, it’s amazing.”

Variable milfoil is problematic for a number of reasons, Pendergast explained. 

“It takes up all the nutrients, all the oxygen,” he said, “the fish can’t breathe.”

While native plants are beneficial for a number of reasons — from providing habitat and food for animals, to recycling oxygen and carbon dioxide — invasive plants, like milfoil, can lead to poorer water quality and the displacement of native species, according to the state Department of Environmental Management. 

In addition to decreasing biodiversity, milfoil interferes with recreational activities, like swimming and fishing, making it hard for residents to enjoy the beach. 

“They can’t bring their canoes and their kayaks in, because the lake is choked,” Pendergast said. 

The economic impact of an invasive plant outbreak can be significant, he added, particularly when the affected lake is a popular spot for recreational activities.

With no natural predators in the area, variable milfoil has spread rapidly in Rhode Island’s lakes, ponds and rivers. An infestation can be especially troubling in a small waterbody like Upper Dam Pond, where the shallow, 23-acre lake can quickly become overwhelmed by the plant, Pendergast said.   

Working with the Town of Coventry, the  Upper Dam Pond Conservation Association has plans to implement both a long- and a short-term strategy for clearing Breezy Lake of variable milfoil.

Over the long term, the town will install stormceptors and filtration systems at eight runoff locations to stop the phosphorus that feeds milfoil from entering the lake. Green Economy Bond funds helped cover the installation at three of those sites, and the association is currently working with the Southeast New England Program and the town to complete the project. 

And in the meantime, the association is raising money to treat the lake for the invader.

In two weeks, the entire lake will be treated with Sonar, a state-approved herbicide that Pendergast said is safe for humans and animals. Moving forward, the association will work with the Department of Environmental Management to spot-treat the lake wherever necessary.  

More than 30 people, including members of the Pawtuxet River Authority and some local Girl Scouts, came out Saturday morning to help clean the public beach on Breezy Lake. 

“We’re elated,” Lori Jean Smith, secretary of the Upper Dam Pond Conservation Association, said of the turnout as volunteers stood nearby, shoveling muck into wheelbarrows. 

The goal Saturday was to clear from the water the old leaves that have accumulated after falling from the oak trees lining the shore. Volunteers in waders and Breezy Lake T-shirts scraped rakes through the water to expose an inviting sandy lakebed. 

While they worked on removing the muck from the water, a plant sale on a lawn uphill from the beach helped raise money for the association’s cause.  

“We want future generations to be able to use this body of water,” Smith said of the cleanup and the organization’s mission. “If we don’t do this, it’ll be a swamp.”

Among those helping out Saturday was Smith’s grandson, Jonah Buccheri, a student at Winman Middle School and photographer for the Upper Dam Pond Conservation Association. Buccheri has been saving up to buy a kayak, he said, and is excited  to take it onto a clear lake. 

“It’s not just for us,” Buccheri added, a camera dangling from his neck. “People come and visit, and if the lake is clean, they’re going to know we take care of it.”

For John Vanluevan Graichen, who founded his nonprofit Keeping Kids Fishing a few years ago with the goal of making fishing accessible to every young angler, the health of the local lakes is key to achieving his mission. 

Breezy Lake is a popular spot for bass fishing. Set far back from the street, the beach is a go-to fishing spot for families seeking a safe place to cast a line, whether from the shore or from a canoe. 

“I came this year, and there were so many weeds that even the sunfish didn’t make any nests,” Graichen, who occasionally uses the beach for his Teach a Kid to Fish events, said Saturday of his first Breezy Lake visit this spring. “I figured we’d help clean up some of these weeds, help the kids fish, help the kids swim.”

When the cleanup wrapped up, those who pitched in enjoyed a lunch donated by DePetrillo’s Pizza and Bakery, D’Angelo and Dunkin’. 

The Coventry Parks and Recreation Department also helped with the event, and Warwick Tree Service donated use of a dumpster and afterward disposed of the debris that was collected. 

By partnering with the town to address the issue of invasive aquatic plants, the Upper Dam Pond Conservation Association wants to set an example, Pendergast said. The hope, he added, is that Rhode Islanders elsewhere in the state will see the importance of fighting for a healthy lake and will take up their own similar initiatives.  

“Every lake has this problem. We want to help people understand what the problem is and what some of the solutions are,” Pendergast said, adding that the association would also like to see the state invest more money into protecting its lakes.

Afterall, the association’s efforts to clean Upper Dam Pond will in turn have an impact on the Pawtuxet River, where the lake’s water enters after flowing through Middle Dam Pond, as well as on the bay.

“Everything that we can do to save the lake here saves the river and saves Narragansett Bay,” Pendergast said. “And if every lake association could help that way, then we would be in much better shape.”

To learn more about the Upper Dam Pond Conservation Association, to browse the Breezy Lake T-shirts and sweatshirts or to make a donation toward the organization’s cause, visit breezylake.com.

kgravelle@ricentral.com

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