The Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges was featured earlier this week in the Democrat and Chronicle.
The article notes, “The idea for the institute surfaced soon after Hobart and William Smith President Mark Gearan took office in 1999. Gearan, who was new to the area, was struck by the importance of the Finger Lakes. The prospect of Hobart and William Smith taking a more active role in preserving them was raised during brainstorming sessions he held with faculty.”
The FLI celebrated its fifth anniversary last year and currently has roughly 15 faculty affiliated with it. The Finger Lakes Institute is dedicated to the promotion of environmental research and education about the Finger Lakes and surrounding environments. In collaboration with regional environmental partners and state and local government offices, the Institute fosters environmentally-sound development practices throughout the region, and disseminates the accumulated knowledge to the general public.
“It offers a bridge between academia and the public,” the article quotes Cynthia Hsu, a member of the Finger Lakes Zero Waste Coalition, about the FLI.
The full article follows.
Democrat and Chronicle
Finger Lakes Institute monitors environment
James Goodman • staff writer •July 27, 2010
GENEVA – Perhaps as a reminder of one of the many things Seneca Lake has to offer, a sign on the road to the city of Geneva boasts that the area is the “Lake Trout Capital of the World.”
But Hobart and William Smith Colleges professor John Halfman worries about the future of the lake’s trout because of the growing presence of algae, which reduce the oxygen supply in the lake needed by the trout. Bacteria that feed off decaying algae consume the oxygen.
“It has gotten worse,” said Halfman, as he and two Hobart and William Smith students – sophomore Laura Carver Dionne and junior Emily Cummings – recently collected water samples from the lake in a 25-foot pontoon boat outfitted for the task.
The focus of Halfman’s work, however, goes well beyond Seneca Lake. His research team – with pontoon in tow – also samples water from seven of the other 10 Finger Lakes.
Halfman, a professor of geoscience who heads the colleges’ environmental studies department, has become a key player as Hobart and William Smith take a higher profile on environmental issues and become a clearinghouse of information about the Finger Lakes.
A report that Halfman produced last year did not find “significant health threats” but tells of the “relatively poor water quality” in Seneca, Honeoye, Otisco, Cayuga and Owasco lakes.
This broadening of perspective has been helped by the establishment six years ago of the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith. Halfman is one of about 15 faculty affiliated with the institute.
With the recent retirement of Marion Balyszak as its director, the institute is at a crossroads – and could become more of a think tank, framing the debate on major environmental issues.
Located in a former fraternity house along the Seneca Lake shoreline, the institute has become not only a gathering place for presentations and conferences but also runs various outreach, education and training programs.
“It offers a bridge between academia and the public,” said Cynthia Hsu, a member of the Finger Lakes Zero Waste Coalition, a Geneva-based environmental group.
Birth of an institute
The idea for the institute surfaced soon after Hobart and William Smith President Mark Gearan took office in 1999. Gearan, who was new to the area, was struck by the importance of the Finger Lakes. The prospect of Hobart and William Smith taking a more active role in preserving them was raised during brainstorming sessions he held with faculty.
“Their protection is critical,” said Gearan.
As it is, various watershed and citizens’ groups monitor the Finger Lakes, which are a major attraction for an estimated 22 million visitors to the region each year and provide drinking water to about 1.5 million residents.
The institute has always operated with a modest budget – now about $275,000 a year – so in addition to tapping into the faculty at Hobart and William Smith, the institute brings in other experts for presentations.
Sheila Myers, the institute’s education outreach coordinator, and Sarah Meyer, its community outreach coordinator, run various programs and projects.
Enthusiasm for environmental issues also is evident in the increased interest in Hobart and William Smith’s environmental studies program. Now the fifth most popular major at the colleges, environmental studies has drawn 111 students – nearly double the 59 majors in 2006.
The colleges’ research vessel – the 65-foot William Scandling – also is available for institute programs, such as Science on Seneca, which trains teachers from the region in how to sample water and then lets them return with students for a half-day “floating classroom.”
This week, 17 teachers from area schools – including Rochester and Pittsford – will attend a two-day session to learn how to monitor streams.
Susan Cushman, Hobart and William Smith’s director of introductory biology laboratories, also serves as the interim research scientist at the institute and is assisting in the training.
“If a certain set of insects are missing from the stream, it may indicate that something is impacting the water quality,” Cushman said.
Meanwhile, Meyer recently worked with the Honeoye Valley Association and Ontario County Social & Water Conservation District to create a soil erosion control garden on the north shore of Honeoye Lake.
Using the colleges’ pontoon, pulled by a van, Halfman and his interns travel to seven other Finger Lakes – Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles and Otisco – to take water samples on a monthly basis from March to November.
Last year, Halfman found that nutrient concentration in the Seneca and Owasco tributaries were 10 to 100 times higher than in the lakes themselves – a sign of potential pollution in the lakes.
Still, questions have been raised about whether Hobart and William Smith can adequately monitor the Finger Lakes.
“The Finger Lakes is a big place. With a limited number of people, it’s hard to get enough tests to make reasonable conclusions,” said Steve Lewandowski, a consultant on lakes issues based in Canandaigua.
Goals and realities
With its director position now vacant, the institute will experience its first change of leadership since it was established six years ago.
“Clearly, whomever we hire as director will have a chance to bring the institute in a new direction,” Halfman said.
He would like to see the institute become more proactive on such “hot issues” as hydrofracking, the controversial method of using chemicals and water to break up rock and extract natural gas.
The institute recently hosted a conference on the issue, but it came after more than 14,000 public comments had been sent to the state DEC about proposed horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing to develop the Marcellus shale.
As a scientist, Halfman considers his job to educate the public. But unlike Canandaigua or Skaneateles lakes where citizens already have organized to preserve water quality, Halfman said, “I don’t see anyone with similar worries in Seneca Lake.”
Halfman samples Seneca Lake water at four sites once a week and at least some of the lake’s tributaries.
The DEC last conducted an algae study of the lake in 2004 and concluded that the levels of algae were low to moderate.
DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren said that that level of algae would be characterized as “straddling” the low-to moderate level, although she acknowledges that recent findings from the institute indicate there may be an upward trend.
Halfman said that the levels are now in the moderate range and are heading toward a higher level.
Gordon Eddington, director of public works for city of Geneva, said that the effluent that Marsh Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant discharges into Seneca Lake is 96 to 97 percent free of contaminants – below the 85 percent free-of-contaminant level set by the DEC.
“They are doing their job. But their job isn’t good enough,” said Halfman.