“I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore”

October 13, 2010

This past weekend, I sat on a bench at a botanic garden and contemplated a tiny wetlands lake. It was a restful interlude in an otherwise mundane, errand-filled day. Even a small lake can have that effect on us – think about Walden Pond, for instance, or Yeats’ lake isle of Innisfree. For others, lakes mean boating, fishing, and vacations. For all of us, they are, or should be, natural treasures.

That brings me to the National Lakes Assessment: A Collaborative Survey of the Nation’s Lakes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water,“This report summarizes the first-ever assessment of lakes across the continental United States using consistent protocols and a modern, scientifically-defensible statistical survey approach.” That sounds pretty significant to me. I’ve always assumed that EPA was studying various bodies of water, but to hear that this is a “first” made me want to learn more.

If you usually assume that the glass is half full, you’ll be pleased to learn that 56 percent of the nation’s lakes are in good condition. If you’re of the other persuasion, 44 percent are “fair” or “poor.” What are the problems? As a card-carrying worrier about the environment, that’s what I think of first. I would have guessed that high nitrogen and phosphorous levels are the biggest issues for our lakes – which is why I’m a blogger, not an environmental expert. The number one stressor of lakes is poor lakeshore habitat, with nitrogen and phosphorus number two. Other problems include algal toxins, and fish tissue contaminants (mainly mercury).

On the plus side, many of our lakes are healthy and holding their own. In one of a number of sidebars, the National Lakes Assessment cites Mousam Lake in Maine. In the late 1990s, soil erosion, polluted runoff from residential properties and camp roads, and sewage effluent meant that phosphorus levels were dangerously high. Happily, since 1997, state, county, and local governments have worked together in a variety of ways, and continue to do so today. The result: the lake was removed from the state’s list of “impaired waters’ in 1996.

The National Lakes Assessment doesn’t take either the full or empty glass position – it deals in the complex reality of where America’s lakes are today and how we can keep them clean for future contemplators. You can read it here or get your own copy here – and, if you’re interested, here’s a bit more about the little lake I visited last weekend.

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