This time of year, Lake Waushakum is picturesque. The trees along the 82-acre lake display vibrant autumn colors. The water glistens as the sun slowly sets behind the dozens of homes surrounding the lake.

But the lake, which straddles Framingham and Ashland, where residents refer to it as a pond, is in trouble. It's being choked by invasive weeds. One of the main culprits is Purple Loosestrife, a perennial aquatic plant native to Europe and Asia that can grow up to six feet tall.

Waushakum is not alone. At least one-third of the 3,000 lakes and ponds in the state have seen the growth of invasive plants such as Eurasian Milfoil, Water Chestnut and Curly-leaved Pondweed, according to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Invasive species are plants found in Massachusetts that were originally brought from other places around the world. And although many non-native or exotic species are harmless, others can be extremely destructive to the environment. They often disrupt the balance of the ecosystem, spreading at an alarming rate, pushing out other plants and wildlife, and even drying up bodies of water completely.

Today, there are efforts underway to nurse these bodies of water back to health, but they are neither cheap nor quick.

James Straub of the DCR Lakes and Ponds program says people are looking for a magic bullet solution, but that doesn’t exist.

“It didn’t take one year for this lake to get like this, so it’s going to take more than one year for us to fix it," Straub said.

Invasive species are often fed by the same phosphorous-based fertilizers people use to keep their grass green. Storm run-off and pollution to the watershed are other threats to the health of lakes and ponds.

That’s part of the problem at Waushakum, said Robert McArthur, Framingham's conservation administrator. Another weed — Eurasian Milfoil — has also become a major issue in Waushakum, he added.

“It'll grow big, and it makes it so it would be unpleasant to swim in your area and you get these things that just grab your ankles," McArthur said, adding that long weeds create drowning hazards for swimmers.

For years, Framingham spent thousands of dollars to kill the weeds with herbicides. But the city recently had to stop when they found a rare protected plant called sedge, because the chemicals would kill that, too.

But officials say there are still several ways to control invasive species even without chemical weed killers. The State Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Lakes and Ponds Program offers an Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) training program through a regional taskforce to promote early detection and rapid response.

Education and awareness are other ways to prevent invasive species, which often make their way into lakes and ponds by hitchhiking onto boats, trailers and canoes.

Straub said prevention is key, because invasive weeds are costly to manage, and once they're in the water, they're hard to eradicate. He pointed to Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., where the town has a ramp monitor to make sure boats are clean before they go into the water, as a model. It’s one of the few ponds in the area that has no invasive plants, he said.

“It has no watershed to speak of,” Straub said. “It’s all groundwater. We hire a boat ramp monitor there, because our number one threat is canoers and non-motorized boats bringing in a non-native organism. “

As a first step, Straub recommends that communities start lake or pond associations. He says such associations can apply for grants, monitor for invasive species, check water quality and work with towns and cities to address watershed issues. That’s what residents have done at Waushakum.

Nick Iarussi has lived on the Ashland side of Waushakum Pond since 1996, when he was a kid. Worried that if nothing is done, non-native plants will fill in the pond completely, he joined the Waushakum Pond Association to save the pond.

“We have multiple pictures to compare to the growth,” he said. “[Years ago] you could see the shoreline.”

The Waushakum Pond Association recently received $98,000 in state grants for two rainwater gardens and a boat ramp project.

The State DCR has also created guidelines to help concerned citizens protect their lakes’ and ponds’ futures by educating residents about ecology and watersheds.
And in 2004, the state put together a report on Lake Management, which focuses on educating residents on controlling aquatic plants and pollution.

In 2013, the state legislature passed a law to protect bodies of water from by instituting fines for introducing invasive species into lakes, ponds and streams, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

But in some communities, the health of lakes and ponds has been in decline for so long, it takes millions of dollars to fix, as with Crystal Lake in Peabody.

Thirty years ago, the lake was full of weeds, trash and pollution.

No longer an eyesore, Crystal Lake is now stocked with freshwater fish, and has boat docks and an illuminated water fountain. But it took three decades and almost $3 million to restore the lake to health, said Mayor Ted Bettencourt.

crystal lake.jpg
It took three decades and nearly $3 million to dredge 50,000 cubic yards of invasive plants at Peabody’s Crystal Lake, but it’s now a centerpiece for the city.
Marilyn Schairer WGBH News

It took years to obtain the necessary funding, said Bettencourt, who has been the city’s mayor since 2011. Fundraising began in the late 1980s. Dredging didn’t begin until about three decades later, in 2017, and the project was completed last spring.

“We dredged over 50,000 cubic yards to bring it from where was two feet [deep], down to eight or nine feet at the bottom of the lake," Bettencourt said.

Peabody is a success story, largely because a community effort was launched to handle the problem, no matter the cost.

But back at Waushakum Pond, Iarussi wonders when people will start to pay attention to their natural resources.

“What is it going to take for people to say, ‘Wow, there's an issue?’” said Iarussi. “I'm thinking it's going to take either for the pond to dry up, or for the point where you can't even use your boat and go into the middle because there's so much vegetation.”

Iarussi said he’s going to keep the pressure on to save the pond, before it’s gone.