With the recent sighting of midges, residents of the Straits Pond area fear there could be another outbreak this year on the heels of the 2020 infestation.
Straits Pond Watershed Association President Tom Bell last month wrote a letter to Town Manager Philip Lemnios in which he anticipated a potential midge infestation this spring and asked how Hull would respond.
The problem has plagued the area intermittently for more than a century and a half, according to Lemnios. During bad years, swarms of the small, two-winged flies congregate on porches, shingles, and other locations, leaving stains that are difficult, if not impossible, to clean off.
There are many variables that change annually that could contribute to the presence of midges. They include seasonal variations in temperature, variation and intensity of precipitation, freshwater table levels, and the biodiversity in the pond.
“We’ve had some complaints already,” SPWA member Greg Koelsch told The Hull Times. “It’s not full-fledged at this point, but the situation could get worse.”
In a follow-up memo last week to Bell’s April 6 letter to Lemnios, Koelsch reported that the midges are starting to swarm, “and if the same pattern follows as last year, we should expect a [fully developed] outbreak of midges within a week or two.”
While he is not yet ready to raise the red flag, Koelsch said the town needs to show it is taking the midge problem seriously and is communicating “with complete transparency to Straits Pond citizens.”
In his May 5 response to the SPWA, Lemnios said Hull residents experiencing midge problems or who have questions or concerns can contact him or the Conservation Department. It is expected the SPWA will share any updates through its newsletter and on social media.
“I would hope the SPWA would advise citizens that this is not the type of problem that will be resolved quickly, nor can it be resolved with the introduction of pesticides or other invasive treatments because of the environmental status of the pond as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, one of only 27 statewide,” Lemnios said.
On May 7, he sent a letter to residents living in the Straits Pond area, acknowledging that the midges had re-emerged in the area and that their presence has been an issue to pond abutters for many years.
He also provided details about the West Corner gate system, along with information similar to what he shared in the letter to the SPWA.
The completion in 2010 of the West Corner Bridge reconstruction, which enlarged the culvert and tide gate and upgraded the local infrastructure, was expected to provide significant environmental improvement as well as relief from the seasonal midge infestations that have plagued area residents for decades.
The tide gate, which controls the flow of water into and out of Straits Pond, is operated under an order of conditions approved by the Hull Conservation Commission in June 2005 and is designed to deter midge larvae pupation by increasing salinity in the pond to help prevent midges from transforming from larvae to free-flying adults.
“The gate system can help to mitigate these issues to some degree, but the gates will never be the only element to control eutrophication,” Lemnios said in his letter to residents. (Eutrophication refers to excessive richness of nutrients in a body of water, frequently due to runoff from the land, which causes dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen.)
Koelsch described last year’s midge infestation around the pond area as a disaster. “The town got flooded with calls, and everyone was up in arms,” he recalled. “Facebook was abuzz with comments, which resulted in an emergency meeting with town officials about what to do.”
In both letters, Lemnios attached a copy of a report from Hull Conservation Administrator Chris Krahforst detailing the efforts that have been made in the past year regarding this issue. (That document is posted on the town website.)
Lemnios also noted that the presence of midges has been a long-standing one, dating back more than 150 years when the natural landscape was altered to create the pond, “with a variety of solutions attempted but with no clear long-term permanency.”
He pledged to continue to pursue the best strategies available that would be acceptable to the town’s federal and state regulatory partners.
Examples of extreme years include 2020, when after appearing to be dormant, an infestation of midges meant residents could not open their doors or windows because the midge flies would find their way into their homes if they did.
At that time, Lemnios called the outbreak “the most severe in many years” and a “frustrating and detrimental setback to the quality of life for the area’s residents.”
Last June and July, members of the SPWA waded into the mud at Straits Pond to collect midge larvae samples to help identify the types of midges that plague the area. An analysis is still underway by an outside party after having been sent to Krahforst, Koelsch said.
Lemnios reported that a Straits Pond Technical Advisory Committee has been reconvened to identify potential mitigation actions and next steps.
The committee is comprised of state and local representatives with professional experience and abilities, according to Lemnios. “We are fortunate to have the time and effort of our partners to help guide next best steps,” he said in the letter to the SPWA.
The fact that there was a hiatus in midge swarms in earlier years was not necessarily an indication that the pond had reached “a perfect end point regarding this issue,” Lemnios said. “It may just mean that one or many of the other variables, both now and yet to be identified, has changed in value. We will continue to explore and seek a better outcome.”
The focus, according to Lemnios, has been “to maintain operations in a manner consistent with established permits and to make operational adjustments that could have a positive impact on midge control, control flooding, and minimize eutrophication.”
Because Straits Pond is part of an area of critical environmental concern, “every action taken that could impact the pond, whether it be adjusting flushing schedules or larger actions such as sediment removal, is subject to intense federal and state regulatory review,” Lemnios said. “This has to be factored into the expectations that some may have regarding proposed solutions.”
The fiscal 2022 Straits Pond budget has been increased considerably, with contributions from Hingham and Cohasset, for a total of $84,875. (Straits Pond is shared with Hingham and Cohasset.)
“This will help, in particular with the ongoing research,” Lemnios noted. “The town of Hull has expended enormous resources to help improve the water quality of the pond.”
These efforts include adding 2 feet to the seawall adjacent to Atlantic Avenue not only to provide more storm protection for homeowners in the area but also to reduce the amount of over-wash debris that enters the pond, among other measures.
Koelsch suggested a measure that residents in the area can take to help combat midges and algae: the use of organic fertilizers. “Doing so will decrease the amount of nitrogen that goes into the pond. Nitrogen overload causes algae growth, and midges thrive on nitrogen,” he explained.
The upshot “is that we need to convey to our residents who live around the pond that there is no short-term solution and that we’re just going to have to bear with town officials while they try to implement corrections to the tide gates,” Koelsch said. “There’s also been talk about clearing the debris in the channel to increase the tidal flow … which will help impede the midge larvae from hatching and to mitigate algae growth.”
(See related story.)