Water researcher sees recovery from acid rain in the tint of lakes
By Ry Rivard
When Paul Bukaveckas was first studying the effects of acid rain on Adirondack lakes in the late 1980s, he came across some stunning sights.
On Silver Lake, the namesake of the Silver Lake Wilderness in the southern Adirondacks, he remembers sitting in a boat and being able to see all the way to the bottom of the lake, down some 60 feet.
When he returned a few years ago, the lake was not so clear.
That’s a good thing.
One of the surprising effects of Adirondack waters’ recovery from acid rain is that they are becoming a bit browner.
Bukaveckas, now a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently visited 20 lakes that had been part of his research back in the 1980s, including Silver. The findings, which were published this spring in the scientific journal Aquatic Science, are the latest confirmation that lakes are recovering from acid rain.
Clean air regulations in the 1990s and the more recent turn away from coal-fired power have all cut back on the amount of noxious acids going into air and falling back down with rain.
Research of waterways in other regions, and now Bukaveckas’ in the Adirondacks, show that these improvements are now visible on the ground—but in ways that may daunt the human eye’s expectations of what a healthy lake should look like.
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The Adirondack Explorer put a series of questions to the researcher, with the following answers, paraphrased except where quoted.
What’s happening here?
Bukaveckas said acid rain was bleaching lakes via a chemical process that is not yet fully understand. The effect was to clear the natural brown color of organic material, like tannins. Now that the acid from acid rain is dissipating, those brown colors are able to express themselves.
How bad was acid rain in the Adirondacks?
By the late 1980s, acid rain had emptied the fish from at least 100 lakes and ponds, according to data from the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corp. The findings helped recast the image of the Adirondack Park from a pristine refuge apart from the world, to a fragile part of it.
Were these lakes totally dead?
The acid in lakes certainly changed what could live there, but not everything died. While fishless lakes were often called “dead lakes,” Bukaveckas said they weren’t totally devoid of life. Plants were still there and so were insects that no longer had to worry about getting eaten by fish.
How much browner are they becoming?
Silver Lake is a perfect example of a noticeable browner lake. “It was now kind of a normal dark blue lake color, and I could tell right away it wasn’t as clear as it used to be,” Bukaveckas said.
Aren’t brown lakes bad lakes?
Often enough, yes. Lake George is famed for its clarity, as are many other lakes in and around the Adirondacks. Subtle changes to that clarity are often the cause of big concern because browner lakes are often dirtier lakes if the color change is caused by pollution like sewage and algae. Some studies, including one of Lake Champlain, have even found that lost clarity can cost lakes tourism dollars or hurt property values. It’s unclear, though, how that research would apply to interior Adirondack Park lakes, in part because there are so many that are remote and thought of as clean to begin with.