I’m taking a break from the blog both this and next week to focus on some other writing projects, but in the meantime I thought I’d delve into the archives of my personal blog I kept while a graduate student. This one was one of my early attempts at science communication and focused on a restored lake which was in the middle of the University of Florida campus. Nice to have a bit of a walk down memory lane to remember the good times in The Gator Nation. Enjoy!
“The Story of Lake Alice: Finding the right balance between nature, administration, and aesthetics”
Originally published on "A toxicologist's tale", 11 Sept 2012
5pm rolls around and you’re more than ready for the end of the day. Whether your day is spent in class, at work, teaching, or doing research, we all need a place to unwind after a busy day here at UF. Many of us seek out natural areas to cleanse our minds and bring perspective to the tumultuous moments we go through each week. For many students and staff, the hallmark oasis of these natural areas on campus is Lake Alice. It’s a place for relaxing walk with friends to look for alligators and soft shell turtles, for a vigorous jog through the winding trees near the Baughman center, or for waiting patiently at the bat house for dusk to fall. Lake Alice provides us with so many easily accessible and engaging ways to enjoy the many pleasantries of nature.
But perhaps on occasion you’ve noticed things that made you wonder just how pleasant these natural areas on campus really are. Maybe a powerful smell as you jog along the north shore, the extremely turbid waters in the creek at Gale Lemerand and Museum Road as you walk downhill to the commuter lot, or the incidences when the whole lake turns bright green. You’ve likely asked yourself what these events mean for our lake, if our lake is as clean and healthy as it should be, and if you should be concerned about any of it. But before jumping into conclusions about how healthy our lake really is, we need to take a step back and understand how the quality of water bodies is defined and the numerous roles our treasured Lake Alice holds for our campus.
Lake Alice has a rich and varied history since the lake and the land around it was purchased by UF in 1925. At that time, the only sources of water input into Lake Alice were rain, storm water runoff, and untreated sewage. As UF continued to expand, the direct input of sewage into the lake was no longer seen as a sustainable option, so treated effluent was discharged starting in the 1960’s. In 1994 the Water Reclamation Plant was built, and now the treated effluent is no longer discharged directly to the lake but is piped to one of Lake Alice’s discharge wells. Lake Alice currently receives water from stormwater and irrigation runoff that enters from the connecting creeks.
Lake Alice is not here only to serve as a oasis for us: Lake Alice and the other lakes on campus are also the official storm water retention ponds for UF. These on-campus lakes are under the regulation of the federal government as part of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that the university holds. Holders of these permits are required to identify and prevent non-point sources of pollution, which includes things like irrigation chemicals and contaminated runoff from roads near the lake and connecting creeks. As part of the broader plan for waters on campus, UF also wants to help Lake Alice reach Class 3 water quality standards for the state of Florida. Meeting these criteria would mean that the lake is suitable for “fish consumption, recreation, propagation and maintenance of a healthy, well-balanced population of fish and wildlife.” Lake Alice is also a recognized conservation area (so no fishing or swimming allowed, even if the lake does meet Class 3 standards) and it serves as home to over 75 plant species and 60 animal species—including our university’s mascot the American Alligator.
With all of these different functions and regulations—storm water retention area to the federal government, a potential Class 3 water body for Florida, and a wildlife conservation area—how is UF keeping up with the array of unique demands from administration and nature alike? One approach to monitoring if these demands are met was by the establishment of the Clean Water campaign in 2003. Dr. Mark Clark, one of the founding members of the campaign and a professor of the Department of Soil and Water Science here at UF, is currently overseeing the outreach and public awareness efforts of this group. These activities include installing drain markers to inform people that campus drains flow into Lake Alice, volunteer clean-up efforts, and educating the public on water quality issues.
Another major facet of the Clean Water campaign is monthly water quality sampling events that have taken place since 2003 at 20 locations all over campus. Some of the locations include the creek near the New Engineering Building, Hume Creek in Graham woods, and the Baughman Center bridge. Based on the water quality data collected so far, there are two main chemicals that have the potential to cause problems for the competing regulations imposed by administration and the natural requirements for having a healthy lake: nitrogen and phosphorus. Both of these chemicals can cause algal blooms and plant overgrowth as well as decreased oxygen levels. Decreased oxygen can cause fish deaths and lead to an imbalance in the different types of wildlife that live at the lake.
In addition to the work by the Clean Water campaign, students of Drs. Dan Canfield and Chuck Cichra have been collecting water quality and fish population data as part of the Introduction to Fisheries Science (FAS 4305C) and Fish and Limnology (FAS 6932) courses for over 30 years. In lectures and hands-on field work, students learn how to collect and interpret water quality readings and how to estimate fish population structure and size. One of the lessons these students learned when the course was first offered is that an aesthetically-pleasing lake is not always the best lake for fish. In previous years when the lake was bright green—before the treated effluent was re-routed—Dr. Canfield and Dr. Cichra’s students were amazed at the large size of bass and other sports fish they caught. “They had been taught for years that a green lake was a dead lake. It didn’t take them long to realize that wasn’t the case for many of these fish species,” said Dr. Canfield.
Over the years as the lake has become clearer, data collected by Dr. Canfield’s class indicate that fish populations have declined both in size and number, and there are also fewer ospreys than in years past. Some fish kills have occurred, but Dr. Canfield indicated that these were caused by severe low temperatures and invasive species such as tilapia. Dr. Canfield also stated that “Water quality has become very focused on issues of phosphorus and nitrogen, while ignoring other important issues like bacteria.” Fish living immediately at the discharge site previously had a high rate of infections and fish in the lake still experience these problems, which demonstrate the need for a water quality plan that also looks beyond chemical measurements alone.
So what is the future of Lake Alice and other natural areas on campus? “The next phase is for the university to decide what steps to take to balance the dual roles of having an aesthetically-pleasing lake and an area appropriate for conservation goals,” said Clark. This means incorporating what we know about the watershed from the water quality data that the Clean Water campaign collected into the future goals of our university and identifying the roles it wants Lake Alice to continue to serve.
What does this mean for the rest of us that don’t have a direct impact on the decisions made by the university? While we may not be able to reduce irrigation run-off or help larger fish come back to the lake, there is a lot that we as members of the Gator Nation can do to take ownership of the health and well-being of the waters on our campus. For more information on the Clean Water campaign, visit http://campuswaterquality.ifas.ufl.edu to learn about events and activities. You can also become a part of UF’s wetlands club and participate in volunteer clean-up efforts around campus and in the Gainesville area. To learn first-hand about lakes, fisheries, and water quality issues, sign up for Dr. Canfield’s and Dr. Cichra’s course, taught each Spring and open to any junior or senior-level students with an interest in the subject.
Our lake has undergone numerous transformations during the changes in water inputs and usage over the years, and the lake will likely not remain in its current state forever. The future of the water bodies on campus hinges on finding the correct balance between nature, administration, and the future expansion of our university. And while you may not be able to have a direct impact on decisions made by our university, you can do your part to help protect these important natural areas by becoming aware of the issues and history of our lake and becoming active in clean-up or educational efforts.