Saturday, October 16, 2021
54.0°F

Studying Lake McDonald water quality among group's 2022 projects

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | September 26, 2021 12:00 AM

After collecting samples of crystal-clear water from Lake McDonald in 2018, researchers made a concerning observation: Nitrogen levels measured in the water were up to three times higher, and phosphorus levels were up to 12 times higher, than in samples taken from the lake three decades earlier. Algae particles also were found at higher concentrations.

The findings suggest Glacier National Park's most iconic lake is experiencing "early signs of eutrophication," the researchers wrote in 2018. That's the phenomenon in which bodies of water become excessively rich in nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which can result in abundant and even toxic algae blooms and deplete oxygen that fish need to survive.

Lake McDonald remains one of the clearest lakes on the continent, but unlike nearby Flathead Lake, its water chemistry isn't routinely sampled and tested. Researchers have only two snapshots in time to compare — one study conducted from 1986 to 1990, and the other conducted in 2018 — so the cause of the lake's rising nutrients levels is difficult to parse. It could be any combination of runoff from aging septic tanks, increased recreational use by park visitors, and the burning of huge amounts of biomass in recent wildfires.

The researchers in 2018 recommended "implementation of rigorous, standardized monitoring" of Lake McDonald "so that data-driven adaptive management can occur to preserve its still-pristine status."

NOW THE Glacier National Park Conservancy, the park's official fundraising partner, is seeking donations to support further research into Lake McDonald's water quality — one of 25 projects on the nonprofit's priority list for 2022.

The research, which has an estimated $40,000 price tag, will be conducted over two years by Jim Elser, director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station, along with doctoral student Brooke Bannerman and Glacier's Aquatic Programs Manager Chris Downs.

They won't just collect and analyze water samples to compare with the earlier data. They also will collect meter-long core samples from the bottom of Lake McDonald in order to analyze a century's worth of sediment layers and dead plankton, search for any signs of long-term changes in the lake's chemistry, and help close the gap in historical information between the two previous studies.

Downs said Lake McDonald is still considered "super-oligotrophic," meaning it has very little biological productivity, and that's what keeps the water so beautifully clear. But a sustained increase in phosphorus could change that by feeding more algae and plankton.

"We are going to work together to evaluate and do a nutrient budget for the lake, but also to evaluate what has gone on in terms of change," he said. "Is it just a short-term potential blip as a result of fires? Or is it some sort of long-term buildup of phosphorus in Lake McDonald, and perhaps other park lakes and other lakes in Northwest Montana?"

IN COMPARISON to Flathead Lake, where samples have been collected 10 to 12 times per year since the late 1970s, Elser said existing scientific data on all the lakes in Glacier National Park is "pretty cursory."

That's troubling not only in terms of ecological impact, but also because the lakes are a huge part of the park's appeal and wonder.

"Lake McDonald, of course, is a treasure. It's possibly one of the most photographed lakes in the world," Elser said, noting countless visitors have photographed the multicolored rocks that line its shores, looking like jelly beans under its glassy surface.

"That's an Instagram favorite, right? And that picture would not be the same if that lake was turbid and cloudy," he said. "And one way you get cloudy conditions is with increased abundance of algae and phytoplankton in the water column."

Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, said the nonprofit relies on donations big and small to support projects that help protect the park and improve the visitor experience.

"We've been able to provide the park with an average of $2 million a year in support for park projects," Mitchell said. "That just flat-out would not happen without private support."

Those interested in donating to the conservancy can find more information at glacier.org.

OTHER PROJECTS on the conservancy's priority list would:

  • Add staff to keep up with growing visitation at Glacier's Recommended Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers, and support wilderness education tools to reach visitors before they arrive in the park.
  • Help Glacier replace an outdated and obsolete database used to catalog various park management decisions.
  • Fund the monitoring of native plants in alpine and wetland areas of the park to inform future conservation efforts and help replenish the rare plant and grassland population.
  • Add a staff member at the ranger station in the increasingly popular Many Glacier area.
  • Remove invasive rainbow trout from Gunsight Lake and stock the lake with more native bull and cutthroat trout to improve sustainability and fishing opportunities.
  • Fund continued monitoring of Glacier's wolverine population using a network of 185 cameras and DNA collection stations.
  • Support efforts to protect the Clark's nutcracker and whitebark pine trees — species that rely on each other and are at risk of extinction due to blister rust and fire exclusion.
  • Provide an intern and funding to support research into declining populations of songbirds and harlequin ducks within the park.
  • Support research aimed at slowing the spread of chronic wasting disease, finding a solution and monitoring transmission of the disease among wildlife within the park.
  • Support research for the Blackfeet Nation's Iinnii Initiative, which aims to reintroduce bison to their historical range on the east side of the park.
  • Fund research into safe wildlife crossings along the U.S. 2 corridor, which separates Glacier from the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
  • Support Glacier's Native America Speaks program and other initiatives aimed at engaging and representing tribal communities.
  • Fund additional staff at Glacier's museum and archives to better engage the public, both virtually and in person.
  • Help the park preserve dark skies by funding astronomy volunteers, interns, events and education programs, and the operation of Glacier's new Dusty Star Observatory.
  • Provide grants that support ranger-led school field trips in the park, as well as classroom visits and distance learning programs.
  • Support the Glacier Conservation Corps, which brings together youth volunteers who work on projects such as invasive weed control, trail maintenance and "citizen science" data collection.
  • Fund Glacier Institute scholarships for park employees seeking to get out of the office, develop a greater understanding of the park and take a refreshing break from overwhelming visitor seasons.
  • Fund a five-day opportunity for kids from Northwest Montana to explore and photograph the park, in partnership with the Glacier Institute, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Missoula County, the Blackfeet Nation, Lake County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
  • Support internships for students interested in conserving native plant species within the park.
  • Support a camp that fosters skills in leadership, critical thinking and problem solving for 12- to 15-year-old girls interested in science.
  • Fund "citizen science" grants that will provide opportunities in science and research on mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pikas, loons, eagles, aquatic insects and invasive plants within the park.
  • Fund "young scholar fellowships" for three or four undergraduate and graduate students who will conduct needed research projects within the park.
  • Produce a third season of Glacier's official "Headwaters" podcast, featuring six new 30-minute episodes.
  • Print handouts, brochures and other publications to inform visitors about park resources, safety and environmental impacts.

Assistant editor Chad Sokol may be reached at 406-758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com.