It's tempting to think about ecological systems as a big black box. Sunlight and nutrients and water go in, nature comes out and no one really cares how it happens. But what about when, because of natural or human disruption, nature produces something that humans don't like? Suddenly, understanding how ecological systems work is incredibly important.
Just east of Geneseo, Conesus Lake provides year-round recreation for residents of Livingston County. But Conesus Lake is having a problem with Eurasian Milfoil, an invasive aquatic plant. Milfoil can grow quickly, producing thick beds of plant matter that inhibit water flow in the lake, creating areas of stagnant water. While the milfoil itself isn't an ecological problem, it disrupts recreational boating and swimming, and the stagnant water associated with thick milfoil beds contributes to algal blooms, which can be a problem.
Dr. Isidro Bosch, a professor of biology at Geneseo, has been working with the Conesus Lake Association to improve water quality for many years. David Hoekstra, a senior biology and education major, was one of several students who worked with Bosch this past summer. Currently, Hoekstra is analyzing the data they collected from an experiment designed to improve water circulation and decrease algal blooms. To do so, the researches used solar powered water circulation units called SolarBees.
"I want to get this [algae] out of this lake," Hoekstra said. "It's kind of like a battle." He admits the problem isn't that simple, but controlling the algal blooms may be a step on the way to a healthier lake.
This summer, Hoekstra learned first-hand some of the difficulties that accompany doing science outside of the laboratory. "You get taught all these things in science [classes]," he explains, "but when you get in the field, it's just not practical." For example, the research team chose specific sites in the lake for experimental placement of SolarBees, but the Lake Association intervened, directing placement of the units at the north end of the lake, where milfoil growth was thickest. Unfortunately, the milfoil at these sites was so thick that the SolarBees were often clogged with plants and unable to function, necessitating frequent repairs.
Researchers also had difficulty appropriate control sites. In this case, a control site is a site in Conesus Lake similar to the test site, but far enough away so that it doesn't show effects of the SolarBee. Having a good control allows scientists to tell if the variable, in this case the SolarBee units, actually makes a difference. The data collected over summer has been sent out for independent data analysis and the preliminary report suggests that the SolarBee units didn't have a significant effect. Bosch and Hoekstra have reason to believe that the units may have more potential than this summer's data indicates, but it's the Lake Association that must decide this spring whether to continue the costly tests.
More information about the Conesus Lake Assosiation and the SolarBee project can be found at www.conesuslake.org.