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Deep study of Lake Max next month will determine LMEC course to come

March 29, 2013

-Core samples likely to tell story of lake centuries back-

After more than 30 years of arduous efforts to fulfill the directives of a 1984 report on the health of Lake Maxinkuckee, the Lake Maxinkuckee Environmental Council and Fund are about to embark on another deep study they expect to guide their path in upcoming years -- a study which they believe marks this as the most studied lake in Indiana.

The three-day study will commence (coincidentally) on Earth Day -- April 22 -- and will not only offer educational opportunities to the county's students in the form of on-the-water observation, but will involve by far the deepest analysis of the lake's condition undertaken to date, utilizing the latest technology and most experienced minds in the field nationwide.

BACKGROUND

The LMEC, which formed in 1981 in response to growing awareness of the deteriorating health of Lake Maxinkuckee, hired Thomas L. Crisman of the Department of Environmental Engineering Services at the University of Florida in 1983 to undertake a "Historical Analysis of the Cultural Eutrophication of Lake Maxinkuckee, Indiana," which was completed in 1984 and published in 1986 (the report can be read in full on the LMEC's website at www.lakemax.org).

Eutrophication is the process of a body of water gaining an overage of nutrients, especially phosphates and nitrates, leading to the excessive growth of algae, which eventually depletes water of available oxygen, causing the death of other organisms, such as fish.

The Crisman report led to the LMEC's three wetland projects, starting in 1987: first the Wilson (relative to the Wilson Ditch, which eventually runs along State Road 117 at the Woodcraft Camp), followed by the Curtis, an existing wetland where baffles and a spillway were installed. Finally, a levy, control structure, and baffles were installed at the Kline wetland on the south end of the lake, which LMEC chairman Allen Chesser says is the largest on the lake and "unfortunately the most fragile...it' was one of three principle concerns for phosphorous pollution."

One historic source of pollution in the lake was septic systems along the shoreline, a problem initially addressed by the voluntary creation of a conservancy district and sanitary sewer on the east shore of the lake.

The J.F. New firm did a study of the lake's water quality in 1993 and found high levels of septic leachate on the west shore from Long Point to the public access site and along the south shore, explains Chesser. After a few years of planning and the creation of the Lake Maxinkuckee Southwest Conservancy District, those regions joined the town of Culver's municipal sewer system, wrapping up the process in 2012 and virtually obliterating the septic-based pollution problem.

"Our primary regulator is the DNR (Indiana Department of Natural Resources)," adds Chesser. "We work closely with them."

"If you look at the Crisman Report as the book that set our agenda," says LMEC executive director Kathy Clark, "down the road we created our watershed management plan, which had specific items to be addressed."

J.F. New also partnered with the LMEC to create the 2004-2006 watershed management plan, which has driven the specific goals and actions of the LMEC since. That plan can also be read in full on the LMEC website.

"All of the original goals that could be accomplished with the approval of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources have been done," notes Chesser.

He points out phosphorous levels appear to be stable and are at low levels, "so we don't see the presence of any algal blooms. We're blessed with a natural counter-measure for some of man's influence in the form of marl (on the lake bottom).

"Our group today is standing on the shoulders of a lot of good work done 25 years ago. The water being treated through constructed wetlands; the principle sources of surface water going into the lake are being treated with those wetlands. Some of the areas around the lake where we could have had sewage affluent seeping into the lake have been addressed for the most part. We've also raised awareness that heavy phosphate treatments on lawns are not necessary, so we've removed phosphate from turf treatment. However, phosphate is needed for grain production. We fear phosphate as a nutrient the most. It would be the most reactive for aquatic plants.

"Everything that happens on the watershed gets into the water at some point," he adds.

THE NEW STUDY

"We know that significant amounts of phosphates are still going into the lake," Chesser points out, "but we should better understand how much has gone in and how it's affecting the lake. Water temperature also affects aquatic plant growth. If climate change is here and temperatures start to rise -- as a gardener, I know we've changed to a temperate zone; we're warmer than we were 20 years ago. We could have more aquatic plant growth, so we can keep our eye on that."

Clark notes Chesser has been concerned about phosphorous loading in the lake "as long as I've been here.

"Bruce Lake (some miles south of Maxinkukee) isn't showing the same high content. So (the phosphorous) isn't flowing out of Lake Maxinkuckee. So where is it? Is it in the sediment or lying loose in the bottom? Small areas can be treated if we find that's the case."
Chesser says he and Clark have been working on rewriting the watershed management plan, and it appeared to be time to look back to the lake for currently accurate research.

"Every year we present a list of wishes from the (LMEC to the Fund), which controls the money. This was presented in November, and there was a lot of discussion. Then it was felt we should look for other partners and resources. We went back in January and had Marshall County Soil and Water involved to act as our liaison with the US Geological Survey out of Kansas."

The USGS was chosen after extensive research by Clark and others. The depth of study of the lake needed, she says, "is such a specialty. I tried my contacts through the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the DNR, and none knew how to do this. This guy in Kansas has done this for 30 other bodies of water around the country...our board felt the skill level of the USGS was important."

Chesser notes Marshall County Soul and Water Conservation partnered with the LMEC in the past towards the Kline Wetland, and the organization has been "very, very generous with their time and resources" leading up to the upcoming study.

Culver Academies, says Clark, was also "very generous," offering $10,000 per year for two years towards the $180,000 cost of the endeavor (the USGS will contribute 25 percent of the project in in-kind services). The LMEC has also applied for a $10,000 per year matching grant from the Marshall County Community Foundation's Ralph Vonnegut Fund, with results of that application known April 14.

The new study will take core samples of the sediment deep under Lake Maxinkuckee, and 200 to 300 years' worth of information is expected to result.

The new research "will not just give us a sound environmental history of the lake," explains Chesser, "but will also show us whether deposits in the lake from the 1970s through now show the amount of nutrients diminishing. That is the acid test. We will see if our efforts are showing up in the bottom of lake."

Core sampling, he adds, "will give us a tremendous baseline now that we have sewage disposal completely around the lake and the wetlands in place. It's the perfect time to make a study of what kind of nutrients and other materials are deposited in the bottom of the lake."

Students from most school systems in Marshall County will take shifts on boats to observe the core sampling process, with explanation included to help them put the work in context, says Clark, who also hopes to document the analysis portion of the work as its undertaken in Kansas, so students can also observe it on some level.

"The teachers are very excited," she says.

"This will be a great opportunity for people to see how the research begins and how it's conducted," adds Chesser. It will be about two years before results of the study are in the LMEC's hands.

It's also hoped USGS representatives may be available at some point during the sampling process for a community meeting to help inform any interested members of the public.

The LMEC expects the study to introduce new concerns and directions in its watershed management plan, which will be enhanced rather than completely "rebooted."

"This study will direct us to certain areas of the management plan that are weaker," notes Chesser. We probably will be looking at areas we thought were addressed but maybe we need to redouble our efforts in some areas.

"Our group continues to study the lake continually. Instead of reacting to a problem, we'd rather have a plan and be proactive. I'm thankful to the Environmental Fund for their generosity in making this happen, and their vision. Even though we've resolved the threats from the 2005 study, there may be other threats looming."

Chesser also lauds the cooperative attitude of the local government.

He says the LMEC isn't looking to return the lake to its 1830s (pre-settlement) condition; instead, he says, "we are preservationists."

The depth of research expected in the USGS study, he adds, "is usually only done when someone has a catastrophic situation on their hands. So we are way, way, way ahead of the curve in looking for nutrients. At this time, things are stable and managed."

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