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Volunteers, county work to bring lake back to former glory

Bill Pfeiffer, a professional diver, stands on the

Bill Pfeiffer, a professional diver, stands on the deck of the Parsnip Pub overlooking Lake Ronkonkoma on Wednesday. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The weather outside is frightful, but Bill Pfeiffer and Evelyn Vollgraff are thinking of summer days on Lake Ronkonkoma.

They are among a small army of volunteers working with Suffolk County officials to craft a new plan for saving and revitalizing the pollution-plagued lake and restoring it to its former glory. That effort took a step forward on Tuesday when the county legislature voted 18-0 to hire a consultant to help develop a plan for the lake's future.

Volunteers in recent years have taken it upon themselves to clean neglected parts of the lake's shoreline. Prodded by residents, county officials in 2016 cleaned up the Smithtown Boulevard site of the shuttered Bavarian Inn restaurant, which had been demolished three years earlier.

But the lake itself — Long Island's largest freshwater pond — remains coated with a film of algae and phytoplankton that makes humans sick if swallowed. Though parts of the lake are publicly owned by the towns of Brookhaven, Islip and Smithtown, it often is off-limits to swimmers because of the contamination, which is caused by storm-water runoff, fertilizers and sewage emissions.

Pfeiffer, a professional diver from Nesconset who has lent his boat to efforts to study the lake, said the lake suffers from "nutrient imbalance," or a lack of oxygen and an overload of nitrogen that encourages the proliferation of algae.

“It’s a buffet," Pfeiffer said. "They grow like crazy. It’s Golden Corral for the … algae.”

Specific plans for the lake are unclear. County officials hope to create more public areas along the lake's shoreline and "restore the lake’s capacity as a recreational space," according to the resolution hiring Hauppauge-based Cashin Associates to develop the county plan.

Officials were awaiting the release of a study compiled by a SUNY Oneonta graduate student examining the lake and its potential future uses. That report has been completed and will be reviewed by civic leaders and officials before it is publicly released, Pfeiffer said.

Though far from being pristine, Pfeiffer said, the lake has shown signs of rebounding. Underwater visibility has improved, he said, adding that cleanup efforts require sufficient funds and public commitment to save the lake.

“The trick is to get rid of the runoff,” Pfeiffer said. “It can be anything they want it to be. They just have to decide they’re willing to invest the time and the care to do what has to be done.”

Vollgraff, a Holbrook resident who has led cleanup efforts by the Lake Ronkonkoma Improvement Group, said revitalization plans are slowly emerging. She pointed to trees planted on the Bavarian Inn site, and efforts to build new boat ramps, possibly as soon as next year.

The former Lake Grove resident remembers visiting Lake Ronkonkoma with friends as a child, and she thinks the lake can be like that again someday.

“We used to spend our time playing at the lake every day," Vollgraff said. “You could see your feet when you stood in that water. … My hope is we can control the algae and be able to get back into the water.”

Legendary lake

Lake Ronkonkoma has inspired apocryphal tales and legends, such as that it is haunted by a lovelorn American Indian princess, or that it has no bottom.

Here's what is true about the lake:

Origin: Glaciers carved out the hole that became Lake Ronkonkoma as they retreated more than 17,000 years ago. Such lakes are known as "kettle lakes."

Depth: 15 feet in most areas; portions are 65 feet deep.

Size: 243 acres

Length of shoreline: 2.23 miles

Fish species: Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, chain pickerel, bluegill, pumpkinseed, black crappie, yellow perch, white perch, carp, brown bullhead

Sources: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Newsday files

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