On the day I met Dr. Jim Chace at Almy Pond, he warned me not to get too close to the water.

The 50-acre pond in Newport was already experiencing a significant cyanobacteria bloom, also known as blue-green algae, which can release harmful toxins. The water was greyish green, like pea soup.

Chace is a biologist and professor at Salve Regina University in Newport. He was there to test the water, as he does nearly every week, for various markers of the pond’s health: dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, E. coli, and more.

We walked to an outlet site where water trickles out of the pond. Chace unzipped his bag and took out several bottles, which he then carefully filled with water from the meager stream.

Dissolved oxygen is an important test, since algae blooms can lead to lower oxygen levels, Chace said. He took the sample and added a chemical that’s supposed to react with oxygen to turn the water a dark yellow. But the color barely changed.

“That's crazy. So normally, this is like a deep amber,” he said. “I mean, there may be really no oxygen, essentially, measurable in that water.”

Blue-green algae blooms typically happen later in the summer, when temperatures are warmer. So it’s not a good sign to measure such low oxygen levels so early in the season, Chace said.

“Never have I seen it like this,” he said, examining the dissolved oxygen sample. “I've sampled for so many years in so many ponds around Aquidneck Island. At this point, this will always have some color.”

This year, Almy Pond was the first body of water in Rhode Island to receive a health advisory from the state, warning the public to avoid contact because of blue-green algae.

The problem isn’t unique to Almy Pond. Last year, Rhode Island officials issued health advisories in 19 different bodies of water because of cyanobacteria blooms. And it’s a growing problem globally, said Jane Sawyers, a scientist with the state Department of Environmental Management.

“More places are seeing more cyanobacteria,” said Sawyers. “It's because of the increasing temperatures, stagnant water, changing precipitation, more nutrients in the water — so farming, fertilizers on your lawn, pet waste.”

Phosphorus is a key nutrient that fuels algae blooms in freshwater ponds. The United States banned the use of phosphates in laundry detergents back in the 1990s, but phosphorus is still found in fertilizers and animal waste — and typically reaches ponds through stormwater runoff.

In Almy Pond, there is so much phosphorus built up in the sediment, the pond essentially pollutes itself. It’s called “internal cycling” — and it happens every year when the algae dies, is broken down by bacteria, and then releases phosphorus back into the water again.

That means blue-green algae can still thrive, even when the hundred-plus homes around Almy Pond have largely stopped using fertilizers with phosphorus and other contaminants.

“That can be frustrating to people because they say, ‘Well, we did everything,’ or, ‘We've done a lot. Why isn't it better?’” Sawyers said. “And it’s this internal cycling [that] can continue to feed itself for many years after the actions have happened.”

That’s what the Watershed Protectors, a new coalition in Newport, is trying to disrupt. Back in May, the group came together to submerge 400 bags of biochar in the pond.

Biochar is a special kind of highly-absorbent charcoal. From the shore, the installation looks like a long line of lobster buoys, or the boundary of a swimming area. But under the surface, the bags of biochar are, hopefully, pulling phosphorus and other pollutants that fuel algae growth out of the water.

In recent years, this low-tech method has been effective at cleaning up lakes in states like Colorado and New Jersey. But Almy Pond is the first place biochar is being used to tackle algae blooms in Rhode Island, said Sawyers.

“It’s exciting to see something new, and to see if this is going to work for Almy Pond,” she said.

Sawyers said the state’s strategy has focused on issuing recreational advisories, since contact with a harmful algae bloom can lead to vomiting, headaches, and rashes — and even worse symptoms in children and pets. But preventing algae blooms in the first place is much harder.

Newport recently received a six-figure grant to remove a section of asphalt pavement near Almy Pond and restore the natural habitat to serve as a sort of buffer for runoff.

But Sawyers says other, more high-tech solutions tried elsewhere — like treating water with a copper sulfate algaecide — aren't necessarily effective in the long-term. And they can be very expensive.

“It's been a little bit of a stalemate. Mother Nature, and pollution, and the community have sort of had to repair to their corners, and it's been that way for a very long time,” said Peter Kiernan, chairman of the Spouting Rock Beach Association Foundation, better known as Bailey’s Beach.

Bailey’s Beach is one of Newport’s most exclusive, private beach clubs, and Almy Pond flows directly onto it. Kiernan says that poses a public health hazard, since many people splash in the public waters off Bailey’s Beach — including the runoff from the pond. The club tests the bacteria levels in this area, and they’re often unsafe for swimming.

Kiernan has been talking to the city about cleaning up Almy Pond for years, but it wasn’t until he learned about biochar that it started to feel financially feasible.

We were elated because instead of ten million or even tens of millions [dollars], you're talking about tens of thousands,” he said.

The total cost of the biochar study — about $40,000 dollars for the first two years — is being funded entirely through private donations, Kiernan said.

The group spearheading the project, the Watershed Protectors, is a bit of a surprising partnership — between Bailey’s Beach (SRBA Foundation), the Aquidneck Land Trust, Save The Bay, the Newport Tree Conservancy, the Preservation Society of Newport County, Salve Regina University, the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, and the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District.

“We don't agree on everything, doesn't matter,” Kiernan said. “We all agree we want to try and fix Almy Pond.”

Also unusual is the City of Newport’s role. While both city and state officials have okayed the biochar study, Newport is not responsible for organizing the project or paying for it — as some other municipalities have in states where biochar is being tested.

But organizers say that has allowed them to try this promising but still experimental strategy, knowing the City of Newport won’t be out a penny if it doesn’t work.

Chace also says he thinks Almy Pond probably hasn’t been a top priority, since it’s not a source of drinking water and doesn’t flow out onto a public beach.

“Where you're gonna put your dollars for cleaning up the environment is going to go to other places,” he said. “So what does it take? It takes a community of people.”

Back at Almy Pond, Chace gears up in rubber boots, protective glasses, and an N95 mask before paddling a canoe into the algae bloom. He’s headed for the center of the pond, to take more samples and measure the murkiness of the water — a test of how much the algae has grown recently.

It may take a couple years to know if the biochar is working or not, and there are questions about how replicable it would be in other Rhode Island ponds. But Chace is hopeful.

Decades ago, locals used to skate on the pond in the winter, and sail and fish here in the summer. It was a place, like many bodies of water in Rhode Island, that meant something to people — and helped them connect with the environment.

“None of that is happening now. It's like a live sculpture — where you just sit there, if you look out your window, and you look at this beautiful water. You can't touch it, you can't go near it,” said Kiernan. “And so the question is: Why does it have to be this way?”

Kiernan hopes the biochar project might show — it doesn’t.


Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. She can be reached at antonia@thepublicsradio.org