Published August 19. 2013 4:00AM Updated August 19. 2013 5:52PM
Salem - After watching the problems - and trash - pile up at Gardner Lake State Park, nearby resident Sue Coffee said she is done trying to fix the mess.
Coffee, who founded the advocacy group Friends of Gardner Lake three years ago, was one of several people who described a buildup of trash, portable toilets falling into the lake and no rule enforcement at the Aug. 8 meeting of the Gardner Lake Authority. Tired of what she considers a lack of responsiveness from state officials on these issues, Coffee is planning to take a break from the activism work.
For the first time, however, members of the Gardner Lake Authority - a joint effort between the towns of Salem, Montville and Bozrah who are responsible for enforcing boating laws and monitoring water quality - are considering whether and how they could respond to the complaints.
The primary concern is the trash left at the park. On a recent Thursday afternoon, a receptacle at the lake meant for hot coals was overflowing with trash, while pizza boxes littered the ground and the picnic tables held empty beer bottles. That, according to Coffee and others at the GLA's August meeting, was nothing. They said someone once left a gas grill as well as lobster bodies strewn across the grass. Corona bottles are a perpetual problem as well.
Like most state parks, Gardner Lake has a "carry in, carry out" policy that instructs visitors to take out any items they bring with them. Without supervision from a lifeguard or full-time staff member at the lake, however, "not much is carried out, at least by the [visitors]," said Russell Smith, a GLA member from Salem. "It's usually carried out by the state."
Some members of the committee said they would like to see the state charge admission to Gardner Lake. They believe that, because the park is free, people who don't live nearby don't mind trashing it.
"You get all the derelicts from Norwich, Willimantic" and other cities coming to the beach, said committee member Ed Socha of Montville.
"If they can get it for nothing, they're going to leave garbage, they're going to leave everything," he continued. He said some people have even buried diapers in the sand.
A story about a portable toilet falling into the lake also generated quite a bit of discussion - and disgust - at the GLA meeting. Three toilets are clustered on the beach for use by swimmers, while two others are located at the bordering boat launch.
Tom Tyler, director of the state parks and public outreach division of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, confirmed that a toilet fell into the lake. He said he wasn't sure of the exact time - Coffee said she thought it was in April or May - and said he did not know how the toilet ended up in the lake. It could have been because of vandalism, a windy storm, or something else, he said.
Sarah Santora, who lives near the lake and said she may take over the Friends of Gardner Lake in Coffee's absence, said "they've got to chain the Porta-Potties." An even better option, she said, would be to install composting toilets like the ones available at Devil's Hopyard State Park in East Haddam. Tyler said that composting toilets or even permanent ones are possible long-term options.
People attending the GLA meeting threw out the names of parks like Beach Pond in Exeter, R.I., and Wadsworth Falls State Park in Middlefield, which no longer allow swimming. Some felt that Gardner Lake might close to the public in a similar fashion if the trash isn't kept under control.
"It's critical that we turn it around," said Santora, who said she believes the state might decide to shut down the beach because the trash that builds up there could pollute the water.
Tyler said Santora has the situation backwards.
"We do not have plans to close the beach," he said, adding that local people were urging the state to consider that option.
Tyler said that it's been a busy season for parks across the state, and that most of the state parks, including Gardner Lake, have been "pushed to the limit."
DEEP staff members "are dedicated to keeping parks as clean and safe as possible for state residents," he said. Cleaning crews come in the mornings to clean litter, said Tyler, but he is not sure how often they visit.
The lake was closed for poor water quality on July 23 and 24, just after a Sunday Coffee and Santora said was particularly bad for trash. Chuck Lee, who works with the DEEP's watershed management program, said the lake was closed because of high Escherichia coli content, which is used as an indicator of potential human waste in the water.
Members of the Gardner Lake Authority said they believe it was possible that the trash affected the water quality. That would mean the trash issue fell more clearly into the GLA's mission.
"I think [all these issues] are part of our area because they trickle down and contribute to the quality and the health and safety of the lake," said Smith, who wants to improve communication between the committee and the state. He plans to invite politicians and DEEP officials to attend an upcoming meeting during which members will present specific requests.
The GLA would like to see more supervision at the beach - Tyler said staff members are at the lake during busy times such as holidays and periodically during the week, but could not say exactly when or for how long - and possibly a weekend-only charge. Members said they don't care where the money goes, just that an admission fee would exist.
Another possible option would be a part-time security guard to patrol during the summer, said Smith.
For her part, Santora is more optimistic than her predecessor. She wants to "try something new" and have the signs explaining park rules translated into Spanish, which she believes would lead to greater obedience.
She said it was actually the trash piled onto the hot coals receptacle that gave her hope.
"To me, it's an encouraging sign" that shows people would use a trash container, said Santora.