Diving right in: WestConn works with area communities
to protect Candlewood Lake as region’s largest fresh-water resource

WCSU research in the public interest:

From the shores of Candlewood Lake to the laboratories and greenhouses of the Science Building at Western Connecticut State University, WestConn faculty and students are having an important and growing impact in preserving Connecticut’s largest lake–and the greater Danbury area’s primary fresh–water resource–through their deepening research and instructional collaboration with a diverse array of public and private sector partners.

For Dr. Thomas Lonergan, professor and chair of the biology and environmental sciences department, decaying Eurasian watermilfoil roots observed and measured this summer by student researchers in Science Building greenhouse tanks of lake water offered the promise of answering critical questions about how to control and reverse proliferation of the pest weed each summer off Candlewood’s shoreline.

For Andrew Oguma, a 2009 WestConn graduate now preparing to pursue advanced degree studies, Candlewood Lake became his field laboratory during his senior year as he completed a series of snorkel dives at the lake’s north end to monitor the progress of newly introduced populations of a type of weevil known to damage and potentially destroy milfoil at sufficiently high levels of infestation.

For Dr. Theodora Pinou, associate professor of biology and environmental sciences, Project Clear – a program that brings together high school students from five local districts to study fresh–water ecology and conservation at Candlewood Lake and classroom labs at WestConn – has laid the groundwork to build a closer relationship between the university and area schools that ultimately could inspire and educate a new generation of scientists.

For Larry Marsicano, executive director of the Candlewood Lake Authority (CLA), these and other signs of WestConn’s expanding research and instructional role in exploring the fresh–water ecology of the 5,420–acre manmade hydroelectric power reservoir represent an invaluable scientific
and public policy planning resource for the CLA, Candlewood owner FirstLight Power Resources, and the municipal governments of shoreline communities.

“Having the university involved is an extremely important component in achieving well–informed and effective natural resource management in this area,” Marsicano observed. “They have the tools, the expertise and the talent to do the necessary research that the Authority cannot do on its own.”

As an independent agency formed in 1972 by the five municipalities bordering Candlewood Lake, the CLA’s responsibilities for water resource management and public marine safety require Marsicano and his staff to address a broad range of concerns, ranging from recreational usage and water quality monitoring to environmental protection, public policy issues and community relations. The 80–year–old reservoir remains in commercial use by FirstLight Power Resources in the generation of hydroelectric power.

Marsicano noted the university’s relationship with the CLA dates back to the 1980s, when he participated with other WestConn graduate students in research work carried out by Dr. Peter Allan Siver, then a member of the WCSU biology faculty, to set up a water quality monitoring program for seasonal testing of the lake. That program, still in use more than two decades later to gauge the health of the lake environment monthly from May through October, established the precedent for the recent resurgence in collaborative research and teaching initiatives that have brought WestConn faculty and students back to the shores and the waters of Candlewood Lake.

Two WestConn research projects currently in progress seek to test and evaluate strategies for more effective containment and eradication of Eurasian watermilfoil in Candlewood Lake. Seasonal proliferation of thick milfoil growth near or at the surface during summer and early autumn months has caused serious disruption to boating, water sports and other recreational activities on the lake, and had a significant impact on Candlewood’s overall ecological balance as areas of high milfoil concentration have spread along its 60–mile shoreline over the past several decades.

Under the faculty supervision of Dr. Mitch Wagener, professor of biology and environmental sciences, Oguma and fellow biology major Ellen Healey literally took the plunge last year into research collaboration at Candlewood as the WCSU student research assistants in a pilot study of weevil use as a biological tool to control Eurasian watermilfoil growth in shallows near the lake shoreline. The impetus for the study came from groundwork laid by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, notably CAES Assistant Scientist II Gregory Bugbee in mapping Candlewood watermilfoil beds and former CAES researcher Dr. Michelle Marko in pursuing initial studies exploring the potential for using weevils as a biological tool to control milfoil regeneration.

The Ohio–based ecological consulting firm EnviroScience, which has pioneered use of weevil implantation at lakes in the Northeast and Midwest, donated an initial population of some 9,000 milfoil weevil eggs to be established during summer 2008 on milfoil stems at three underwater test sites in waters at the north end of Candlewood Lake near Sherman. Wagener selected Oguma and Healey for the important research assignment to assist EnviroScience biologists in the initial implantation and conduct followup site visits to monitor progress of the milfoil weevils in establishing and growing their populations. Oguma’s aquatic skills made him the logical choice to become the primary diver for collections of samples, while Healey took the lead in performing the lab work required to determine the number of weevils found on the milfoil stems harvested.

“I’m very careful in how I pick students for research projects like this, to make sure they are students who will take this work seriously and show maturity in their approach to the research,” Wagener observed. “Itís a great opportunity for our students to get out of the classroom and into the field, working alongside professionals working on real-world research projects.”

Oguma said that his experience in the field instilled a sense of responsibility for following professional procedures in scientific inquiry, to establish consistency in milfoil sampling over an extended period of study that will yield meaningful and comparable research findings over time. He will deliver an invited lecture to present findings from the Candlewood Lake project in late October at an international symposium of the North American Lake Management Society.

The initial studies conducted by Oguma and Healey during 2008 “showed that where stocking had occurred, the weevil population had maintained itself, but there weren’t enough to cause noticeable damage because there was just too much milfoil out there,” Marsicano observed. Plans for EnviiroScience implantation of additional weevil eggs in a $15,000 project funded by lake owner FirstLight were postponed until 2010 due to relatively late and below–average regeneration of milfoil growth during summer 2009. Wagener noted it will take further research to determine whether weevil populations can survive and build through reproduction to levels sufficiently high to become an effective biological tool in controlling milfoil spread.

Following his graduation in May, Oguma accompanied the current WestConn students chosen to carry on the weevil field and lab research, Jason Conn and Allison Ford, to the Candlewood study sites to provide guidance on research procedures. “I dove and showed them how I made my way around to take samples,” Oguma said. “I wanted to show them the seriousness of the work. You’re not in the water with a GPS, so you have to show them how to use natural markers to establish their positions and maintain consistency in the study areas and the sampling.”

In contrast to the new biological strategy of using weevils to control milfoil, winter drawdowns of the water level of Candlewood Lake have been implemented by the power company for several decades, generally on a biennial basis. The drawdowns have been conducted in part as a tool to reduce regeneration of milfoil and other underwater vegetation during the following spring and summer. Significant variations in the extent to which milfoil has grown back after recent drawdowns have raised questions as to the effectiveness of this eradication strategy, however, and Lonergan approached Marsicano following a WestConn presentation on the weevil study to propose a new research collaboration between the university and the CLA to seek a definitive answer to these questions.

“I decided to organize a research project to consider the question, ‘Is milfoil effectively killed by freezing and drying its roots?‘” Lonergan said. In fact, he found no published research studies available on the subject, and noted that it is impossible to predict the effectiveness of lake drawdowns in eradicating milfoil without scientifically testing the vulnerability of milfoil roots to prolonged periods of freezing and desiccation. “If they draw down the lake to expose the milfoil for an extended period to either drying or freezing, and nothing happens, then we need to ask why,” he said.

Lonergan introduced the project as part of the new Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) curriculum, geared to provide an opportunity for MAT graduate students preparing for future teaching positions in biology to participate in a group research project demanding rigorous inquiry into a real–world scientific question. Thirteen MAT students under Lonergan’s supervision visited Candlewood Lake in June to collect watermilfoil samples harvested by a team of volunteer divers and returned to the Science Building for study. Samples were trimmed to their root systems; half of the specimens underwent freezing at minus–5 Celsius with the remaining half subjected to thorough drying, each for varying periods of time ranging from 24 hours to three weeks. The root samples were then restored to large aquarium tanks of water drawn from Candlewood Lake and maintained at normal lake temperatures and natural–light conditions in the Science Building greenhouse. Student researchers maintained a regular laboratory schedule during the summer to monitor decay or regeneration of the sample root systems through a series of measurements of root biomass, as well as testing for salt leakage as a chemical indicator of root damage.

“These milfoil roots have been in here for almost a month, and you can see they are rotting and breaking apart,” Lonergan observed during a visit this summer to the greenhouse tanks. “They have gone necrotic, and they are not coming back. What we have found is that even 24 hours of drying or freezing seriously damages the roots, and 48 hours does severe damage from which they do not recover.”

These promising initial findings underscore the need for further research to determine how variations in conditions during Candlewood Lake drawdowns – such as the severity and length of sub–freezing periods, the extent and duration of snow cover, and the size and length of the drawdowns themselves – influence their effectiveness in limiting milfoil regeneration the following summer, he said. Analysis of historical data on lake hydrology and weather conditions over the past two decades also would help to evaluate the correlation between specific drawdowns and climate factors that may have enhanced or reduced their effectiveness in controlling milfoil.

“We know we can kill the roots by freezing or drying them in the lab, but does the environment afford you the same kinds of conditions?” Lonergan asked. He noted that further study is required to determine the extent to which shoreline areas exposed during periods of major Candlewood drawdowns are subjected to freezing and drying conditions: “Does the soil ever completely dry out? Does the soil freeze deep enough to damage the milfoil roots?”

Marsicano observed that further exploration of the environmental, temperature and soil conditions best suited to achieve the desired result of sustainable milfoil control is precisely the type of information needed to guide the CLA and FirstLight Power Resources in planning future winter drawdowns.

“In the 1980s and early 1990s, the power company would drop the lake level significantly and keep it there for 60 days,” Marsicano said. But he noted FirstLight currently faces economic and other pressures that sometimes may not allow the company to maintain drawdowns for as long a period in winter. Since deep drawdowns “are not species–specific” and also impact the survival of other aquatic plant and animal life, he added, “you want to take a scientifically, carefully gauged approach to managing the aquatic weed problem and minimizing collateral damage.”

Lonergan this fall will conduct a second round of sample collection, testing and analysis, seeking to determine if milfoil roots harvested at the end of the growing season develop chemical defenses against freezing during the ensuing winter months. Looking forward, he recognized it will take years and additional funding to complete the research required to explore the diverse aspects of Candlewood Lake drawdown effectiveness in curbing milfoil growth. He views the potential benefits, both in educational terms for WestConn students and in public policy terms for Candlewood Lake managers and shoreline communities, as ample justification to pursue further research collaboration.

“We are using our geographical location effectively for education, building our relationship with the local community, and seeking to provide guidance for effective decision–making in water resource management,” he noted. For student participants in the Candlewood project, he said, “it’s a great opportunity for them to get involved and understand how science is done, to learn decision–making skills required to face difficult and unanticipated problems.” He has challenged student researchers to interpret their data and take ownership of the study: “They buy into the process because they have directed it themselves. If I tell them to take the project to the next level, now they know what they should do.”

The important role of WestConn MAT students in Candlewood Lake research will provide experience, knowledge and motivation for them to share their interest in fresh–water ecology and resource preservation in the classroom when they move on after graduation to new science teaching positions in Connecticut schools. A successful model for engaging young students in such research is the Project Clear program at Candlewood Lake, a cooperative teaching venture that currently brings together about 125 high school students from the Brookfield, New Milford, New Fairfield, Sherman, Bethel and Danbury districts for joint field and classroom studies designed to raise awareness about fresh–water ecology.

Funded by an interdistrict grant from the Connecticut Department of Education and administered by Education Connection, the regional education service center for western Connecticut, Project Clear “gets youth of different socioeconomic backgrounds engaged and working together to understand the ecological, conservation and social issues pertaining to the lake,” Marsicano explained. Following several meetings held on WestConn’s Midtown campus with teachers involved in Project Clear, students spend a week at Candlewood Lake doing data collection on subjects such as weed beds, water quality and lake organisms, concluding with presentation of their research results on the final day of their field study week.

WestConn’s role in Project Clear is currently limited to making Science Building instructional facilities available for the program’s classroom sessions and providing an opportunity to meet WestConn faculty and students. Pinou, who coordinates secondary education outreach for the WCSU biology department, envisions a more extensive collaboration bringing together the university, area secondary schools and the general community in an expanded Project Clear designed serving as a model for natural resource study and science education.

“We need to build collaborative relationships between our students and area high school students, between high school teachers and university faculty, between our faculty and researchers in the field,” she said. “My dream would be to provide a model that brings together local school districts, the university, and agencies and community groups interested in fresh water conservation at Candlewood Lake, to ask how we in this region can care better for this natural resource.”

Toward that end, Pinou hopes to secure National Science Foundation funding to support the development of student internship and mentoring programs at WestConn within the framework of an expanded Project Clear. WestConn interns would have the opportunity to participate in studies and research related to conservation of the Candlewood Lake watershed, within the wider context of an emerging WestConn research program focusing on fresh–water resource management. Equally important, they would gain valuable teaching experience by serving as mentors for Project Clear participants from area school districts, with each WestConn intern assigned to lead a group of four or five high school students.

“Being a good mentor is a skill, and everyone would benefit from a program teaching mentoring skills and effective delivery of a message,” Pinou observed. These skills are especially needed in the field of science education, she noted. “I would like to see the image of a science teacher change. Students often associate the word ‘science’ with fear – so the question is, how do we overcome that perception? How do we build a program that takes high school students with the drive and the passion and gives them the opportunity to excel, and trains our students to mentor them?”

WestConn stands to reap the additional benefit from expanded engagement in Project Clear of introducing high school students with demonstrated interest and skill in the sciences to the instructional and research opportunities available in the undergraduate programs of the university’s natural science departments, kindling interest in WestConn as their college choice. “There’s a softening of the walls when these students are introduced to the university and meet our faculty and students,” she noted.

Marsicano agreed that expanded WestConn participation “would bring Project Clear to a whole new level. Many of our Project Clear students choose to go to WestConn. They’ve been there and gotten a preview of what the science program, the classrooms and labs, and the faculty are like.” With further development of the university’s studies of fresh–water ecology at Candlewood Lake, he added, “they will be attracted by the fact that they can become involved in these real–world research projects at WestConn.”

Marsicano said the evolving research relationship between WestConn and the CLA, FirstLight and municipal governments of the towns bordering Candlewood Lake will make an important contribution to informed and scientifically grounded decisions on management and public policy issues related to the lake. He anticipates that findings from the watermilfoil root freezing and desiccation studies will provide important information in planning future lake drawdowns, and views the next stage in the weevil research project as critical to determining the effectiveness of this biological control in the Candlewood environment.

”The beauty of academic research is that it’s apolitical and objective,” he observed. “They go where the research leads them.”

“One of the benefits in this collaboration is that, when you are engaging the power company and local communities in trying to develop strategies for environmental management, it has more impact and credibility when you have the research of a university behind you,” he said.

During his tenure as a CLA staff member since 1998 and executive director since 2003, Marsicano also has gained a profound appreciation for the close interrelationship between biological and ecological research and objective social science analysis of the public policy dimensions of resource management decisions. Earlier in this decade, WestConn student participants in a project led by Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Chris Kukk studied policy issues raised during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission review process for renewal of FirstLight’s license to generate hydroelectric power, and one of those students, Melinda Tarsi, subsequently served as a graduate intern on the CLA staff.

“They gave us information we could use in the long term,” Marsicano said. “You can study a subject until you’re blue in the face, but unless you have some way of translating that into a plan for bringing about social change, all you have is a lot of data.” He has found researchers at WestConn have a keen awareness of CLA’s need for good science to underpin sound public policy recommendations: In the present milfoil root research, for example, “Tom Lonergan gets the importance of doing this kind of research from both the academic perspective and the community relations perspective.”

Marsicano sees another long–term benefit from WestConn’s research at Candlewood Lake –training of a new generation aware of the importance of conserving precious fresh–water resources.

“If these kids understand now some of the nuances of this big environmental resource in their backyard, they will pay more attention and make their voices heard when these natural resource issues come up in the future,” he said.

Photo by Peggy Stewart
Photo by Peggy Stewart
“Having the university involved is
an extremely important component
in achieving well–informed
and effective natural resource
management in this area.”

— Larry Marsicano, Executive Director, Candlewood Lake Authority

Photo by Peggy Stewart

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