Saving Lake Afton, Yardley’s scenic centerpiece

    A long time before Xboxes and iPhones became the prime pastime of teenagers everywhere, Nick Primola grew up in the postcard-pretty Bucks County borough of Yardley, one of seven kids sardined in a small house a block from Lake Afton.

    The 2-acre lake was his playground. He spent winters ice-skating there, and every summer, he fished, canoed, stalked snakes and frogs, and mucked around with friends in its feeder creeks.

    “Yardley is a one-stoplight town, and there weren’t pools and athletic clubs everywhere in those days,” said Primola, who’s now 47. “There wasn’t much to do. But you didn’t know there wasn’t much to do because you had the lake, where you’d go have adventures until it got dark and your mom called you home for dinner. It was a treasure growing up.”

    He’s raising his two kids now in Yardley and joined the Friends of Lake Afton, a nonprofit that maintains the lake, imagining that would mean planning cleanups and fun community activities preserving a lake revered as the borough’s scenic centerpiece.

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    Instead, he’s felt more like a marine biologist or chemist, racing against the clock to save a lake made sick by a well-meaning restoration project and a nearly century-long buildup of sediment.

    “We all got into this because of the unique charm of Americana the lake has, but we didn’t anticipate the extent of the problems we’d have to solve,” said Primola, vice president of the all-volunteer Friends of Lake Afton.

    More than 300 years after the Yardley family dug the pond for its grist mill, Lake Afton faces dire doubts about its future.

    The lake, just waist-high at its deepest due to decades of sediment buildup, needs a dredging supporters expect will cost more than $750,000.

    And after workers finished a $1 million street beautification project in 2012 that removed lakeside shade trees, sunlight-fed algae has flourished, making the lake seem more like a swamp than a sanctuary in the summers since.

    You’d think fixing Lake Afton would be easy, although admittedly expensive, if someone in government would just write a big check to get restoration work under way.

    But the lake, while used freely by public as long as anyone can remember, is privately owned. That creates questions about who should shoulder the costs of its repair.

    Borough officials are working on one possible answer — leasing the lake from its owners, so that officials could apply for grants to pay for the dredging and otherwise revitalize the lake. But even that’s not easy: The lake and its surrounding land have five owners, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, a merchant who owns the lakeside Starbucks, the Yardley Historical Association, the Yardley Friends Meeting, and a family who lives in the only home sited on the lake. No one could answer how long it might take to hammer out the details of a lease deal.

    Dredging up past projects“Lake Afton is Yardley’s centerpiece. It forms its heart. Lake Afton and the library,” said Susan Taylor, a board member of the Yardley Historical Association, referring to the Old Library by Lake Afton, one of Bucks County’s best known landmarks. “It’s where people have come together to enjoy being part of the community. You will hear nearly everyone talking about winter on Lake Afton, ice-skating on the lake, or summers fishing and sitting beside the lake.”

    She added: “This is a big issue in Yardley. The dredging, especially, is an incredibly complicated, expensive project, because you need to draw down the lake, which has the ramifications for the wildlife, smell, unsightliness, then haul what’s taken out away, which probably needs to go to a landfill. All that is incredibly expensive and disruptive.”

    The lake last was dredged in the 1920s, Taylor said. So much silt and sediment has gathered since then that the lake has grown steadily shallower, and Primola once sunk up to his thighs in “a mystery goo” when he waded into the middle during a cleanup.

    The Friends of Lake Afton formed in 1969 to raise money and solicit volunteers to maintain the lake, spending donations to put in walkways, create gardens, buy benches and trash cans, and otherwise improve the area.

    While dredging has been a longstanding need, the 2012 streetscape project was a cure that turned out to be worse than the disease, Primola and Michelle Sharer, president of the Friends of Lake Afton, agreed.

    “It was well-intended, but it was not as well-executed as it was intended,” Primola said. “The perimeter looks nice, but the actual lake itself is now sick.”

    Workers replaced a narrow, tree-root-riddled path with a wide, gravel promenade on the Afton Avenue side of the lake, an improvement that has lured more visitors than ever before, Sharer said.

    But they also removed many shade trees, created slopes that led to erosion problems, and added storm drains.

    “More storm drains means more runoff, which in this day and age, means more chemicals. That literally feeds the algae,” said Primola, referring to phosphorus, a prime ingredient in many lawn fertilizers. (Scotts dropped phosphorus from its lawn fertilizers in 2013 to discourage algae blooms.) Sunlight also helps algae grow.

    The project was designed by the borough, funded by the Federal Highway Administration and bidded out by PennDOT, a PennDOT spokesman said. Borough officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

    Before the project, the Friends of Lake Afton spent about $3,000 a year to maintain the lake, Sharer said.

    But since last spring alone, the group spent $10,000 to replace old aerators to oxygenate the lake and apply algaecide, which cleared the lake’s center of the green gunk but left plenty framing its banks, she said.

    They expect the big bills to continue, as they try stopgap solutions to foil the algae.

    Looking towards the future

    Next year, for example, they plan to pay environmental workers to add a natural black dye to the lake.

    “It would act like sunglasses and help fight algae growth by making the water darker and a bit cooler,” Sharer said. Also planned: Planting “riparian buffers,” or greenery along the banks that would filter out chemicals, and hanging “nanodiscs,” or filters, at storm drains to absorb pollution before it taints lake waters.

    The group also continually raises money and scouts for volunteers.

    Getting rid of lawn chemicals seems a tougher problem, with Buck and Brock creeks — and runoff from the hundreds of creekside lawns upstream — feeding the lake.

    “We try to educate people about the products they can use on their lawns instead,” Sharer said.

    Sharer also aims to show the public what will be lost if the lake isn’t saved.

    An avid photographer, she daily captures the life of the lake, including turtles (such as endangered red-bellied turtles), frogs, snakes, ducks, geese, catfish, carp, koi, bass and sunnies.

    “We don’t have a lot of big fish, because they’re stunted; they don’t have enough nutrients to grow,” Sharer said.

    Sharer lives in the only house on the lake, a stately 1913 manse a long-ago owner named Bird Haven.

    Her love for the lake goes way beyond improving the view out her windows, though. She feeds waterfowl daily, photographs the lake’s wildlife for stacks of albums she shows to drum up donations, and even “mothers” a pekin duck, hatched several years ago from an egg abandoned on her patio. That duck, who she calls “Alfalfa” for the tufts that sprouted from his head as a chick, runs to her when he hears her coming and spends nights in her basement, snuggling with a stuffed monkey.

    “We want to keep the lake healthy not only for the people but for everything that migrates through here,” Sharer said.

    Jimmy Kirlin, a Lower Makefield resident who volunteers with Friends of Lake Afton, agreed: “It’s so beautiful here, especially during the holidays. If you ever have a Mr. Scrooge moment during the holiday season, you just come down here, and it snaps you out of it just like that. Lake Afton is a get-away-from-it-all right here in town.”

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