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July in Wisconsin doesn't get much hotter. At 7 a.m. it's already 85 degrees and humid. Scott Szymanski, lake monitoring coordinator for DNR's Northeast region, has arranged an early morning meeting in the tiny town of Mt. Morris in Waushara County. The volunteers we'll soon meet are part of DNR's Self-Help Lake Monitoring Program, which invites interested citizens to regularly measure water clarity and the chemical make-up of lakes, and thus contribute to long-term environmental trend data. That invitation has been extended far and wide: from 150 volunteers in 1986, Self-Help which now boasts involvement of over 700 volunteers monitoring 570 lakes.
This morning we meet Nils and Lois Dahlstrand, 20-year residents of Morris Lake. They welcome us into their meticulous kitchen and lead us to an impressive display of charts and graphs Nils has generated to reflect 13 seasons of monitoring. He'll use them to demonstrate water clarity changes to other residents at a Lake District meeting next week.
On the Morris Lake Chain of five small lakes, only Emerald Lake is named. The others are locally referred to as Lakes A, B, C, and D. We cruise through all five, noticing fragrant water lilies, basking turtles and a great blue heron drying its wings in the sun. Scott gives us a basic lesson in aquatic plant identification and determines that the milfoil we see is "the good stuff," not the nuisance Eurasian water milfoil. Nils tells us the lake's vegetation has been selectively harvested since 1983. "The Lake District owns its own plant harvester," says Nils, who was instrumental in obtaining funds to purchase the harvester. "And we even cut places for boats to get close to the shore for fishing."
After forming a lake association in 1976, Nils was elected lake commissioner in 1979 when the association became a district. "I had three goals," he says. "To educate people by publishing a newsletter, to fix the dam, and to document water quality, which is how we got involved in Self-Help."
We make our way into Lake D to take a Secchi disk reading. Italian astronomer and Jesuit priest Pietro Angelo Secchi invented the black-and-white clay disk in 1865. Now made of metal, the Secchi disk is lowered into the water until its alternating black and white quadrants are no longer visible. The depth of this disappearance indicates the density of floating plants or suspended sediments, and serves as a possible early warning that human activity is affecting the lake.
The disk drops 14.5 feet – a good reading for this lake. "Our clearest year yet!" Lois remarks. Next, Nils drops a vertical water sampler down to measure the water temperatures at various depths. While Lois records the data, Nils collects and bottles water from three feet below surface for on-shore chlorophyll tests.
In the Dahlstrand kitchen, Nils filters water to send to the State Lab of Hygiene for chlorophyll analysis, to help estimate the lake's algae population. Chlorophyll, the green pigment in algae, reflects the amount of nutrients in a lake, which may change depending on lake uses, shoreline development, and other factors.
The Mt. Morris Lake Management District worked to replace their dam in 1995. During construction, the dam broke, causing extremely low water levels. "Our Lake District was very involved in the dam," says Nils. "We wanted to get as many people to help as possible because they could learn something about the lake. And education is so very important. So we raised a good portion of the money to help repair it."
Nils plans to keep the Lake District members informed of monitoring endeavors. "We want to know what's going on with our lake," he says. "And we want others to know about it too."
Monitoring work complete for the day, Nils provides Scott and me with copies of the results that he has graphed, and Lois sends us off with homemade oatmeal and hickory nut cookies.
Julia Buehler, Self-Help volunteer on Hancock Lake in Waushara County, greets us at the door of her lakefront home. Stifling heat and humidity leads Scott to question spending the afternoon in a boat exposed to intense sunshine. But Julia is ready to go, sporting a light blue cap decorated with Self-Help patch and pin.
Julia usually paddles out in her canoe, sometimes alone and sometimes with her 10-year-old grandson Jordan, but today we borrow a DNR motorboat and start with a shoreline cruise and tales about the lake. It's quiet. Our boat makes the only sound and we see no one except two children fishing from the far shore. An area resident since 1962, Julia moved five years ago to a lakefront home constructed on the foundation of the house that her grandparents built in 1894.
"My grandpa would go out in the winter and aerate the lake," she tells us. "He'd drill holes in the ice so the fish wouldn't die. A creamery operated over there till the 1950s," she says, pointing to the north shore. "Over there we still find bones from the slaughterhouse that used to dump its waste."
For ten seasons, Julia has been monitoring both Hancock and nearby Fish Lakes. The best thing about it for her "is that I can get away from the phone!" Julia retired after 40 years of nursing in Wood County, but she's now serving her second two-year term as Hancock village president. A dip of the Secchi disk takes her away from the increasing demands of her duties.
Hancock is a "no wake" lake. Julia is glad that restrictions keep motor boat activity on the lake to a minimum. Less than a dozen homes loosely line the shore of the small lake. She guides us to a deep spot for a nine-foot Secchi reading today.
At home, we meet Willie, Julia's graying golden retriever, and find refreshment with a cool glass of water. I ask why she monitors. The response is matter of fact. "I just like to do it. And I'm going to keep doing it until I can't get into the boat any more!"
First thing in the morning, Reid Hundertmark already wears a coat of sunscreen. "If I don't do this, my dermatologist zaps me!" he chuckles. We meet his nephew, Bob Gayhart, also a homeowner and volunteer monitor on Pine Lake in Shawano County.
There's a strong breeze today as we load monitoring gear onto the pontoon boat and head down the shore to pick up Joy Krubsack, the third member of this tightly knit volunteer team that's been a part of Self-Help for nine years.
Joy, an eighth-grade earth science and social studies teacher in the Clintonville district, sits on deck at a card table with the Self-Help manual out, reviewing protocol aloud and lining up bottles for dissolved oxygen testing. Reid, a retired social studies teacher and Bob, retired from AT & T, work the water sampler. While one lowers it, the other calls out temperatures, then fills the small bottles. By the time Joy has added manganese sulfate to each bottle to help convert the oxygen to iodine, Bob and Reid have reeled in the next sample.
All three volunteers grew up in nearby Clintonville and had known each other from their involvement in the Cloverleaf Lakes Protective Association. "We wanted to know more details about how our lake was doing," says Bob. "That's why we began monitoring."
"We haven't seen much change in nine years," adds Joy. "When we first started monitoring though, we had oxygen at the lowest levels. Since 1990, we have had no oxygen at the deep water levels." She shows me the graphs she has maintained of Pine Lake data for the past nine years. Certain plants and fish need high oxygen levels to live, so insufficient oxygen can alter underwater composition and cause fish to die.
Of the three lakes Scott and I have visited, Pine is the largest and sees the most use. But Joy, Bob and Reid believe that the water is important for recreation and along with their lake association, are very tolerant of activities on and around the lake.
Back on land, Bob carefully prepares the phosphorus sample by adding acid while Reid titrates to find the concentration of oxygen in the samples of lake water. Phosphorus levels show the amount of nutrients a lake contains. The more phosphorus, the more plants and algae present. With three people, the sampling process goes quickly. "To monitor by yourself would take a lot longer, and would be boring," Joy comments.
Just when the last of the dissolved oxygen readings is complete, the sky becomes very dark and clouds quickly roll in. As rain pelts down hard, we scramble to Reid's garage for our good-byes, thankful to have completed our monitoring in dry weather.
Years of data collection are necessary to determine whether a lake has degraded or improved. Through involvement in Self-Help, Nils and Lois, Julia, Joy, Reid and Bob have taken an active role in the future of Wisconsin's lakes. With a large number of volunteers sharing the knowledge they gain statewide, awareness of lake ecology continues to expand. As Lois said: "Participating in Self-Help makes us feel good about the knowledge we have gained about our lake. And there is great gratification in being able to share that knowledge and help others contribute to the protection of lakes."
Maureen Janson has worked for the Self-Help Lake Monitoring Program in DNR's central office in Madison since 1997. She writes and edits the quarterly Lake Monitoring News and lives on Lake Monona in Dane County.