CLEAR CREEK TOWNSHIP, IN – The high-pitched shrill of bird calls traveled through a thicket of trees as a group of scientists made their way to the edge of Lake Monroe. Under overcast skies, each of the three citizen scientists placed a kayak into the lake and climbed aboard. They paddled forward and around an inlet, looking into the water every few feet.
The three are members of the Friends of Lake Monroe, a volunteer group created to support water quality and sustainable recreation on the lake. The group’s president and founder, Sherry Mitchell-Bruker, was one of the scientists on the lake. She says the three were out on the water to collect water samples and look at water clarity.
“There’s a proposed logging activity on private land across the lake there. It’s a large plot of land, and the neighbors in the area came to us and said, ‘What can we do about this,’” Mitchell-Bruker said. “We can monitor and find out if that logging activity has any impact on the water quality.”
The group started out as a Facebook group in 2016. They first studied the lake the following summer. They took a baseline study to which they compared later outings and sample collections. They now work hand-in-hand with the state, supplementing testing carried out by the Indiana Clean Water Program.
Mitchell-Bruker said people she’s talked to understand the importance of protecting the health of the lake, but some are a little nervous about the group’s work.
“I think that people who live more remotely from the lake maybe have less connection to it, but they still don’t think it’s a bad idea,” she said. “But sometimes they can feel threatened by our organization and the idea that we’re going to talk about the problems.”
She says residents become concerned when group members or state or federal agencies begin looking into mercury concentrations, algal blooms and other problems could threaten access to Lake Monroe. But, she says talking about the problems facing the lake is the first step to solving threats to the lake’s health.
Indiana’s lakes are popular places for recreational water activities like boating and swimming. But they also play a crucial role in the lives of many Hoosiers as a source of drinking water. Lake Monroe, for example, fulfills the drinking water demand of about 100,000 people from surrounding counties, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Friends of Lake Monroe board member Mary Madore says many people don’t understand the important role lakes play in their everyday lives.
“You turn on the faucet, and you drink, and you make your food and wash, and I don’t think many of us think about where the water comes from. You think that it’s always going to be there,” Madore said. “And I think that that is what we want to do as Friends of Lake Monroe. We want to make people aware that if we throw garbage into the water, that has the possibility of getting into our drinking water.”
Melissa Laney, director of the Indiana Clean Lakes Program, says many factors can affect the health of a lake system. Land use changes, a change in population densities, farming runoff and even climate change can cause changes that have negative effects on a lake and the people who depend on it.
Many people live on a lake watershed, or an area of land that has a common set of streams or rivers that drains into a larger body of water, and don’t even know it. Their actions directly impact what happens to a lake.
“I think there’s often a disconnect,” Laney said. “You might survey a group of people and ask them if they live on the watershed, and if they don’t live at the river’s edge or the lake’s edge, then they’re like ‘No, I don’t live on a watershed.’ But we’re always in an area where water is shedding off the land. Whatever we do to it eventually makes its way to the water.”
Everyday activities like watering and fertilizing a lawn could directly affect the lakes in a person’s watershed, particularly if local governments allow lawn additives that contain the nutrient phosphorus. Phosphorus can promote excessive growth in plants. When that nutrient is washed out of a lawn and enters the watershed it can cause the excessive blooming of algae that are potentially harmful to humans.
“These nutrients then spur the growth of these cyanobacteria, and then they can grow at nuisance levels or densities,” Laney said. “There’s aesthetic issues. There’s odor issues when you get a scum forming, but there’s also potential health risks. Some of these species, not all of them, produce a toxin.”
Some forms of the algae contain liver, nerve or skin toxins that affect humans and other animals that may be exposed to the algae. Laney says keeping track of surface water health is important, and, as the state’s monitoring program, the Indiana Clean Lakes Program works to monitor as many streams, rivers and lakes as it can. But, due to budgetary constraints, the program cannot collect data from every surface water source in the state.
To augment its own capabilities and ensure that the program can reach as many water sources as possible, the program depends on citizen scientists who volunteer their time to collect water samples. Laney calls groups like the Friends of Lake Monroe “the eyes on the lake,” providing critical information to supplement the random small samplings conducted by the Indiana Clean Lakes Program.
The scientists and concerned citizens that make up the Friends of Lake Monroe do not get paid for their work, but say it’s worth the effort.
“What we want to do is keep the land that is in the watershed and our lake as clean as possible so that we have this beautiful resource for a long time,” Madore said.