You’ve likely experienced it: On a hot summer day, nothing sounds better than a dip in the cool water of a local lake. But when you step in to get a respite from the haze and humidity, you find your feet sinking into a thick, slimy mass of muck, and whatever ideas you had about spending the day in the water fade like the fiery tendrils of a Fourth of July firework.
John Tucci knows this all too well.
He and his wife purchased property on Sherman Lake in 2003, intent on fixing up an old cottage on it. It had a beautiful lakefront and a gravel shoreline that eased into clean, clear water. A few years later, after the cottage project was finished, Tucci took his family there one summer day and held his then-toddler daughter’s hand as they waded into the water.
Tucci’s daughter emerged from the lake so dirty her swimsuit had to be thrown away.
“I didn’t buy lake property to not be able to swim,” he says. “My lake was dead.”
Chemicals had been used to kill the growing vegetation in the lake, especially the invasive Eurasian watermilfoil. The treatment works, but the end result is a thick layer of muck that develops as the plants decompose, choking the lake of oxygen, especially on the bottom.
“A lake whose bottom is out of oxygen virtually has no chance of improving. It only goes downhill from there,” Tucci says. “A lake bottom like that is fundamentally no different than a septic tank. If the first thing you think of when you leave the water is, ‘Man, I need a shower,’ then you’ve got an issue.”
The reason for explosive growth of invasive underwater plants is fertilizer runoff from lawns that ring a lake’s shoreline, as well as runoff from area agricultural operations. The nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into a lake literally supercharge the growth of vegetation.
So Tucci, of Richland, got to work thinking of ways he could remedy the problem. He experimented in his garage with new aeration techniques that used tiny bubbles to draw low-oxygen water to the surface, where it’s oxygenated and then makes its way to the bottom through displacement, in a continuous cycle.
“You know those bubbles you see in an aquarium? It’s basically the same idea only much larger in scale,” Tucci says.
From experiment to reality
After successful tests of the technology on small ponds in the area, Tucci created a company called Lake Savers LLC in 2007. He patented the process he developed, Aerforce Microporous Ceramic Diffuser Technology, and launched a part-time pilot program the next year. By 2009 he had quit his job as a senior leadership and management consultant to Fortune 500 companies to do lake restoration work full time. In 2015, Tucci changed the company name to EverBlue Lake Solutions, and he has worked to streamline the process of natural lake restoration to a science.
“Mother Nature does this twice a year. It’s called lake turnover — where more-dense, oxygen-rich water at the top sinks to the (lake) bottom and displaces the less-dense, low-oxygen water there, which rises to the top,” he says.
EverBlue’s services are exclusively for inland lakes. So far, EverBlue has helped restore 50 lakes, including many across Michigan and as far away as Vermont, California, Missouri and North Carolina.
Locally, EverBlue has provided services for Paw Paw and Maple lakes in Paw Paw, Austin Lake in Portage and Crooked Lake in Texas Township. At any given time, Tucci’s 20 employees are working on between 30 and 50 lakes, he says, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast.
Lakes from 50 acres to more than 1,000 acres are EverBlue’s sweet spot, with most of its projects involving lakes ranging from 100 to 500 acres in size.
The company’s technology, however, can be scaled up for even larger lakes. EverBlue has treated a 1,400-acre lake in Vermont and several even larger lakes, Tucci says. The company has even developed a design concept for Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, which is about the size of Rhode Island.
Despite the company’s ability to scaleup its work, doing so comes with challenges, Tucci says, including funding and regulatory challenges.
Restoring a lake’s health
Up to a year in advance of deployment of EverBlue’s system, workers take water-quality samples to determine clarity and oxygen levels and then create a depth profile of the lake in need of help. That data is used to create a custom plan for the lake to determine how best to reoxygenate the water, with calculations made for how many diffusers to use, where to place them and to what depth, creating a network that is fed by an air compressor on the shore. Tucci holds a patent on aspects of his proprietary technology, he says.
In addition to the aeration, EverBlue also offers other strategies to make a lake as healthy as possible, from harvesting phosphorus, which can later be repurposed as fertilizer, to employing what the firm calls BioBlast, high-potency beneficial bacteria that help to clean lakes of algae blooms and other nuisance organic material.
But the company’s lake treatment is not just about creating a more pleasant swimming experience. It can be a money saver too, despite the cost of the treatment, which can last years. For every two feet of water clarity gained or lost, property values either rise or fall by 10 percent, Tucci says.
Lake associations usually sign on to a five-year leasing program for the treatment, Tucci says, so that they aren’t hit with a single large bill. The treatment, he says, can total hundreds of thousands of dollars, with each lake being different. He includes a free assessment and performance-based contracts, so that if restoration is not producing the results expected, rebates or other discounts can be applied.
Tucci admits that chemical treatments have their place but says they should be utilized sparingly. Other strategies, like drain and sewer improvements or installing vegetation buffers and addressing erosion issues, can go a long way toward keeping runoff from entering lakes, he says. Homeowners, too, have their part to play in maintaining a restored lake, by trying to reduce the use of fertilizers on their lawns.
“We all have to play our part in making our lakes healthier,” he says. “In the end, the costs of these treatments pay for themselves. In a way, I am trying to put myself out of business.”
But with so many lakes experiencing the same problems as the ones his firm has helped alleviate, the future of EverBlue seems anything but murky.