The University of Idaho is opening a $100,000 “lake lab” in Coeur d’Alene to study the ecology of local lakes and their importance to the region’s lifestyle and economy.
“Lakes are the center of much of North Idaho’s life,” said Mark Solomon, director of the new laboratory. “The more we understand about what makes them work for us and what we do that harms them, the better off we are.”
Over the past several years, for example, UI researchers have tracked an increase in toxic algae blooms in Fernan Lake and how lake recreation was affected when people were advised to stay out of the water.
University researchers also looked at how milfoil affected the value of waterfront real estate around Lake Coeur d’Alene. Where milfoil was present, properties sold for 13 percent less than comparable properties without the aquatic weed.
The new lake lab will help UI continue those kinds of scientific and economic studies, Solomon said.
UI funded the lab’s start-up, which included a research boat, a dock at the university’s Coeur d’Alene Harbor Center and new lab equipment. The Harbor Center is next to the Spokane River, just downstream from Lake Coeur d’Alene. The building once housed an Idaho State Police forensic lab and was already configured for research.
“We have a (lake), a lab and an interest in doing research. That was the birth of the lake laboratory,” Solomon said.
A National Science Foundation grant helped pay for the Fernan Lake studies, and UI will apply for similar grants for future research. University officials also expect to work closely with state and federal agencies and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe on cooperative projects.
Understanding how historic mine waste affects Lake Coeur d’Alene already is a topic of collaboration among the UI’s Frank Wilhelm, a lake scientist who will be the lab’s research director, and the tribe and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
Last summer, UI researchers studied zooplankton in the lake. The tiny animals are an important part of the food web, but little was known about their presence in Lake Coeur d’Alene and how they’re affected by heavy metals that washed downstream from decades of mining activity in Idaho’s Silver Valley.
UI’s research “is helping us understand some of the questions that are out there in terms of the science of Lake Coeur d’Alene,” said Laura Laumatia, the tribe’s lake management plan coordinator.
The university will apply for another National Science Foundation grant to study how the federal cleanup of historic mine waste in the headwaters of the Coeur d’Alene River could affect water quality downstream in the lake. It’s a complicated topic.
The cleanup will reduce the amount of zinc and cadmium flowing into the lake, which will improve water quality, Solomon said. But as the amounts of those metals decline, the lake will become more productive for plant and animal growth.
Over time, a more productive lake could lead to decreased levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. That has implications for 75 million tons of polluted sediment at the bottom of Lake Coeur d’Alene because lower oxygen levels increase the chances of the metals becoming re-suspended in the water.
What happens with dissolved oxygen is critical for the lake’s future water quality.
“We’re really optimistic that over the next year, we’ll be looking at some expanded funding to answer some of the questions we have,” Laumatia said. “These are things that we wouldn’t have the resources to address on our own.”
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