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A Lake in Distress

By: Diego Rayas, Business Director

In the middle of the University of Richmond sits Westhampton Lake, one of the defining features of the school’s scenery -- but it may be in trouble. Purchased alongside the original campus for Richmond College in 1910, Westhampton Lake continues to remain a part of the UR campus. Feeding into Little Westham Creek, to East Branch Tuckahoe Creek, and draining into the James River, Westhampton Lake affects more than just the student population on campus. In fact, there is an entire ecosystem surrounding the lake, as many students can observe with the ducks and geese that populate the campus.

However, the lake is not as pristine as it once was. While there seems to be no imminent danger to the lake in its current state, there are issues that, if left unaddressed, could cause issues in the lake down the road.

Peter Smallwood, an associate professor of biology, has been at the university since 1997. Since he arrived on campus, he has collected information on many of the organisms that live in the lake. He mentioned that there were differences in the wildlife from when he first arrived on campus and now. One of the main reasons he attributed these changes in wildlife was the dredging done by the university every year. Dredging is when people go into a body of water and clean out the bed of the body of water by scooping out the excess mud and weeds at the bottom. “When I arrived, they would lower the level of the lake to dredge every third year, then every second year, and now it’s every year,” Smallwood said.

Smallwood said that it had been many years since he last saw bullfrogs around the lake, as well as a species of spider that lived on vegetation over the edge of the lake and consumed insect larvae that would live at the edge of the water. He said that he believed their disappearance from campus was because of the yearly dredging of the lake.

Smallwood pointed out, however, the importance of the dredging of the lake. If the dredging is not performed, and all the excess silt and dirt is left to accumulate at the bottom of the lake, then it would become more shallow, he said. This would cause the water to heat up more, and restrict oxygen from being concentrated enough in the water, causing a large amount of the fish population to die. It would not take too long before the lake would turn into a mudflat, he said.

The importance of the yearly dredging of the lake was also emphasized among members of University Facilities. According to facilities staff, the silt that accumulates at the bottom of the lake mainly comes from the erosion of the surrounding area. This includes erosion from both the residential private homes upstream of the lake, as well as the surrounding parking lots that are also upstream from the lake, such as X-Lot.

Michael Torquato, one of the landscape supervisors for University Facilities, explained the process for dredging the lake. Members of the facilities department drain the lake approximately six feet to access the silt at the bottom of the lake in many areas of the lake. They then use an excavator to remove large portions of the silt, which is then transported to a landfill off campus. The lake is then left to return to its normal height using with rainwater. Rob Andrejewski, director of the Office of Sustainability, pointed out the issues with the yearly dredging of the lake. He explained how the constant dredging and draining cause “turbidity,” or the constant mixing of dirt with water, in the lake. This, in turn, causes the water to look and remain murky.

Andrejewski said that besides the issue of the sediment, the lake was overall a “healthy body of water.” He discussed the topics of algal blooms potentially becoming a problem if they developed on the lake -- which is exactly what greeted students arriving on campus at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester, when the lake’s bright green color elicited multiple questions. Smallwood explained that an algal bloom happens when there is a rapid growth of microscopic algae or cyanobacteria on the water. As the organisms die, they release nitrogen into the water, causing the oxygen concentration in the water to drop to an unhealthy level for the organisms in the lake, resulting in the dying off of fish in large numbers.

Unfortunately, sometimes the remedy to one problem can cause trouble with something else. Allison Moyer, the landscape manager for University Facilities, explained how there are air pumps under the surface of the lake that are used to make sure there is enough oxygen circulating in the water. This process causes movement in the lake, which helps to prevent the algal blooms from happening, and also prevents the lake from freezing in the winter. This attracts ducks and geese to Westhampton Lake, as all the surrounding water sources may be frozen over.

Paul Sandman, the integrated pest management specialist for facilities, mentioned the issue of the geese and ducks on campus. While having the animals on the lake is not a bad thing on its own, results from water quality tests showed that the total level of coliform bacteria in the lake is much higher than the United States Environmental Protection Agency suggests it should be for recreational use.

Coliform bacteria is the family of bacteria that contains E. Coli, which is found in the waste of animals. The EPA recommends that the limit for E. Coli found when testing the quality of the lake be no higher than 126 colony forming units (cfu). Results from the tests performed by facilities shows that the lake can contain averages ranging from 516 cfu to 1298 cfu based on test locations around the lake. This means that the lake is, accord- ing to EPA standards, not safe for recreational use. This is one reason that the school advises students not to go into the lake. “We’ve already said for years ‘Don’t go in it,’ the police department doesn’t want anybody in it,” Sandman said. While an email from the Student Health Center said that there have been no cases of students becoming sick from falling into, or ingesting water from the lake, the number of bacteria in the lake can easily cause someone to become ill. To put it into perspective, the EPA recommends that any water used for drinking have zero cfu of E. Coli.

There are currently active attempts to try to reduce the number of bacteria in the lake, first and foremost, by stopping the increasing size of the goose population on campus. From scaring the geese off with dogs, to stopping the hatching of eggs, the university continues to find ways to try to reduce the population. One of the most recent attempts involved putting up the signs that inform people not to feed the waterfowl. This has caused the geese to rely less on people for food and could signify to the animals that they may have to migrate, especially as students go off campus, such as in the winter or summer.

Smallwood, Andrejewski and the facility staff all agreed that climate change, in general, was having its toll on the lake. Smallwood said that as the environment continues to get warmer, the lake will too. The warmer the water is, the less oxygen it can hold, which can lead to the large dying off of fish as well. They all did agree, however, that there were ways to help improve the quality of the lake. From partnering with other departments on campus, to having students also get involved and even by making changes to the way things such as parking lots around campus buildings are built to help stop erosion, they all stated that there was great potential stored in one of the main attractions that our campus has to offer, especially if it continues to remain an attraction to campus.

“The lake was one of the most defining and aesthetic parts of campus,” Christopher Barry, a first-year student, said. “The campus was designed around it. For me, the campus was one of the reasons I finally decided on going to Richmond with the lake firmly being in my mind. It seemed nice.”

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