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WEYMOUTH

Shallow pond raises concern

Drop in level said to imperil herring

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / May 12, 2011

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With peak season for water use again on the horizon, some Weymouth residents are questioning whether the town’s water management practices will lead to deep drops in the water level of Whitman’s Pond and more dead fish in its herring run.

Residents around Whitman’s Pond and local environmentalists say the town is drawing too much water off the East Weymouth pond, promoting weed growth, raising water temperature, and killing aquatic life. Weeds such as the invasive purple loosestrife are expanding from banks into the pond, which serves as the town’s backup water supply, while the pond’s low level chokes off water from the herring run, resulting last year in an early summer fish kill.

Urging officials to take preventive measures now, Trish Pries, president of the Whitman’s Pond Association, recently asked Town Council to reduce the drawdown of Whitman’s Pond “and ensure there are no avoidable herring slaughters this year.’’

A 100-acre body of water with an average depth of 8 feet, Whitman’s Pond has been plagued by weeds for years. Pushed by the association, the town has treated the pond’s weed-infested West Cove with herbicide and has machine-harvested weeds elsewhere. The pond is home to a town park with a boat ramp off Middle Street, but swimming lessons have disappeared from the one-time swimming beach that residents say was obscured by overgrowth last year.

And last summer thousands of herring fry — young fish spawned that spring — died too early in the season to blame a dry spell for the herring run stream’s dearth of water, said Mary Parsons, director of the Advocates for Rockland Abington Weymouth Hingham, a local environmental watchdog group.

“I grew up on this pond, and my father knew everything about this pond,’’ said Parsons, who now lives in Rockland. “I was boating on this pond in the great drought of ’64 and ’65. It was in better shape’’ then.

Parsons said she got out of her car on Washington Street in early July last year to take pictures of dead fish in the herring run that connects Whitman’s Pond to the fish ladders in Jackson Square. The lack of water in the herring run, the second-largest in the state, was “not natural’’ and “not from evaporation,’’ Parsons said.

Town officials recently concluded that the fish kill was caused by a combination of circumstances, including vandalism, and not from drawing down water levels too severely on Whitman’s Pond.

But Dom Galluzzo of Weymouth, a member of the Advocates watchdog group, blamed a faulty water management plan that fails to take protective measures such as outdoor water restrictions during summer months.

The “draining of our declared emergency drinking water source boils the trapped aquatic life and is changing the pond into a swamp,’’ he said to the Weymouth Town Council earlier this year.

Galluzzo challenged the town’s assertion that current use is far below its estimated “safe yield’’ — the amount of water a town is permitted to withdraw without causing harm to the water’s source.

Pries, who has lived on the pond for 12 years, said the water withdrawals are taking a toll. “The weed growth has continued, no doubt about it,’’ she said last week.

The town’s Great Pond provides 90 percent of Weymouth’s drinking water. In order to prevent water in Great Pond from dropping below permitted levels during heavy use times, the town draws down water from Whitman’s Pond to feed into Great Pond — too much, members of the Advocates group say.

But Michael Chiasson, Weymouth’s water and sewer superintendent, said last week that low water in the pond and the herring run last summer was attributable to the “less than one inch’’ of rainfall the region received in June and July. Further, “the sudden, sharp reduction of water’’ in the herring run may have been caused by a vandal’s inserting a board into a sluice gate, he said.

Chiasson also said that water levels on the Washington Street side of the pond were affected by a breach under the barrier that separates one part of the pond, known as South Cove, from the larger part. The town has plans to fix the breach this year.

And both Chiasson and the state Department of Environmental Protection point out that Weymouth is using less water than its permitted amount of 5 million gallons per day — and so has the legal right to use more.

That worries residents who fear that the town’s agreement to sell 245,000 gallons a day to the Tri-Town South Shore Development Corp. for the first phase of its SouthField development will intensify the stress on the pond.

“Weymouth shouldn’t destroy Whitman’s Pond and the herring run to uphold any agreements that were based on wrong assumptions,’’ Pries said. “The herring are feeder fish for the larger fish the fishing industry relies on to provide a known excellent food source for people.’’

Members of the Advocates group also point out that full development of the 2,855 residential units planned for the site of the former South Weymouth naval air base would require 1.4 million gallons a day, according to a report by their consultant.

Kevin Donovan, Tri-Town’s executive director, said his organization relies on the conclusions of the DEP.

“I know that it’s an issue the residents of Whitman’s Pond do have some concerns with,’’ Donovan said. “We’re satisfied that the DEP, who has oversight over the water management, says there is sufficient water to deal with the current contract.’’

Chiasson said that since the town averages 4.06 million gallons per day, sending 245,000 gallons to Tri-Town shouldn’t harm the pond. But the town uses more than the average in the peak-use summer months, and even in last year’s dry spell officials imposed no restrictions on use because water levels at Great Pond never dropped below trigger points, Chiasson said.

“We had daily discussions about whether we should do it,’’ he said.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.