Friday, May 22, 2015

Citizen Scientists Monitor Lakes in Alaska

Once a month from May to October, Laura and Bryan Emerson squeeze into their blue tandem kayak surrounded by $4600 worth of scientific equipment and paddle out to the deepest section of their remote lake to measure water quality. An hour or so later, they fly the samples and notes via their 1954 Piper PA-20 to a staff member of the Mat-Su Borough Volunteer Lake Monitoring program, who meets them at a roadside lake in order to whisk the time sensitive samples to a lab near Palmer.
Kayaking out to test the lake water
photo by Howard Feldman

To date, the Emersons are the only volunteers monitoring an off-road lake, and the program coordinator, Melanie Trost, would like to recruit additional flyers for the summer of 2015.  Even people who cannot do monthly water sampling can help with occasional observations,” says Melanie. “We welcome reports of dumping, pollution, and invasive plants in our lakes and rivers. One concern is old polystyrene docks, which beavers and muskrats chew and burrow into, and the sun deteriorates, releasing the little foam beads into the watershed where it looks like food to birds, fish, and mammals. Pilots can tell us what they see on a particular time and day at a lake they visit.”

For monthly volunteers, the process works like this: Laura reads the GPS to ensure that the kayak is positioned in exactly the same spot as previously. There, Bryan drops anchor and waits for the lake bottom to settle. Meanwhile, he calls out from the stern his observations about the weather, air temperature, wind direction, water color, and any floral or faunal wildlife. Laura takes notes on a four page form. These monthly notes, year after year, capture the dates on which annual visitors, like pond lilies, equisetum, pond ribbons, spider mites, are most prolific. In 2014, sadly, they recorded no nesting pair of loons, as in every prior year. Will they return? Have changes in the vicinity of the lake deterred them?
Once the water is still, Bryan slowly lowers a flat, Secchi disk to monitor water clarity, which can be affected by algae, sediment, or other suspended particles. Laura records the depth at which he can no longer differentiate the alternating white and black panels.  Next, he lowers a heavy, multi-parameter sensor (a Quanta) to compare temperature, conductivity, dissolved oxygen and pH at various depths throughout the lake profile. As expected, the water near Trail Lake's muddy bottom, layered with a thick carpet of decaying leaves, reads much lower oxygen levels than nearer the surface, unless a recent storm has thoroughly stirred and mixed the lake water. Finally, Bryan lowers a water sampler which collects and caps water 1 meter below the surface.

Because the lake is shallow, the Emersons' collection takes about 45 minutes. Volunteers monitoring deep lakes may spend two hours.  When the couple paddles back to their dock, Bryan preps for flight while Laura loads everything but the water sample into their red and white Piper for the 20 minute flight to Willow.

Their location is fortunate for several reasons,” observes Melanie Trost, Watershed Coordinator. “For one thing, they are our only volunteers west of the Susitna River, and their sleepy lake may be in the process of changing. It is a few miles from another water body, Alexander Lake, where Alaska Department of Fish and Game found a relatively small patch of Elodea last summer. That is the first discovery of the invasive aquatic plant in the Mat-Su Borough. This prolific plant can spread easily and is detrimental to water quality, so boaters and pilots should become aware of where Alaska’s Elodea infestations are and how to avoid spreading the plant. We are delighted to have pilots among our volunteers.” 

During Bryan's 42 pre-flight safety checks, Laura pours the lake water into two jars for laboratory analysis of chlorophyll and phosphorus levels and packs them in a cooler topped with ice. Then she calls Marie Filteau, the Watershed Technician, to confirm delivery of the water samples to her at Willow Lake in half an hour.

Alaska offers many opportunities for volunteer “citizen scientists” to share observations about water quality, earthquakes, and populations of loons, bats, and other creatures,” notes Laura. “It is more satisfying to contribute my nature notes to a large database for analysis than to store them only in my personal notebooks. I really enjoy participating in the Mat-Su Lake Monitoring Program. And, let's face it, like any pilot, my husband is always looking for an excuse to fly!”


Would you like more information about this program or to learn of similar programs elsewhere?  Contact Melanie Trost, Watershed Coordinator, at 907-861-8608. In 2014, volunteers monitored 22 lakes in the borough. Of these, 13 have been studied for 10 or more years. For 2015, volunteers are particularly sought for Alexander Lake, Big LakeLake Lucille, Cottonwood Lake,  Matanuska Lake, Kepler Lake and Bradley Lake. Three, one-hour training sessions will occur at three different  Borough locations in early May.

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