Makeover Nice, But Pond Needs Deeper Solution

By Dr. Robert Thorson

Congratulations to the University of Connecticut for giving Mirror Lake, its campus centerpiece, an underwater haircut and lake liposuction treatment. Tom Callahan, the administrator in charge, has done a superb job in his new role as beauty consultant.

They say that beauty is only skin-deep. In the case of artificial ponds like Mirror Lake, beauty is only as thick as the molecular film that shimmers the light when there’s a breeze and reflects the campus landscape when glassy still. Below the surface, it remains a mass of gray liquid, a sludge pit full of avian poop and dead algae, and a sediment retention basin for anything that washes off the surface of the state’s flagship campus.

I do not satirize my employer or commend Callahan in jest. I’m thankful for the cosmetic improvements that physically removed a floating mat of algae and aquatic weeds thick enough for songbirds to walk on. Poisoning the plants with copper sulphate didn’t work. Aeration bubblers weren’t enough to halt potential outbreaks of botulism and overflows of murky water into the downstream Fenton River. So, this year the university hired All Habitat Inc. to cut rooted weeds from the bottom (the haircut), and vacuum-suck the muck that’s been accumulating for years (the liposuction).

According to a 1997 story in the UConn Advance, the site of Mirror Lake was once “a marshy meadow,” which “became a breeding ground for swarms of mosquitoes that fed on faculty families.” In 1918, the meadow was artificially flooded with a flimsy dam, which was raised and reinforced in later decades. Before mid-century, the climate was cold enough and the water clean enough for students to cut ice to refrigerate “the campus creamery, dining halls and faculty homes.”

Fast-forward to the tumultuous 1969. According to campus historian Bruce Stave, “a real love fest, or ‘happening’ occurred when some four hundred students and faculty gathered at Mirror Lake for a “Dawning of Love and Peace” that included singing, dancing [and] enjoying nature.” Imagine doing that today, given the sulfurous smells emanating from the sludge and the slippery slime of goose droppings on the lawn.

The campus improvements and beautification of the past dozen years – magnificent buildings, immaculate lawns, nice parking spaces and brick-paved pedestrian malls – have been wonderful. But in ecological terms, it has also brought “yearly influxes of road sand and salt, lawn fertilizers, traffic-related pollutants and sediment from erosion and construction on campus.” That quote comes from a website devoted to the hydro-geo-bio-chemistry of Mirror Lake set up by UConn marine scientist Thomas Torgersen and Michael Young from the Neag School of Education. Any long-term fix for Mirror Lake will require that we stop overfeeding it with nutrient-laden runoff and God knows what else.

The other major long-term fix is to keep waterfowl away, especially Branta Canadensis, the Canada goose. Quoting from a column I wrote two years ago to bring attention to the pond: “Their raucous flocks used to be a powerful symbol of seasonal rhythms and wildlife migration. Now they’re a harbinger of droppings of the ghastly, greenish white, totally nasty, curled-at-the-end variety that, when dissolved, turns our ponds into black lagoons.” Anyone hungry?

Recently, the pond has become a personal source of embarrassment. I’ve been teaching an honors course, “Walden and the American Landscape.” In class, we discuss the hydrology, ecology and water quality of what is arguably the most famous pond in the world, one that remains remarkably clean in spite of the surrounding suburbia. On their way home, these same students must walk around the university’s most troubled body of water en route to their dorm rooms, which overlook the water.

My, how things change. In the 1920s, a swamp flooded for insect abatement becomes a place for boating, skating and cutting clean ice. In the 1960s, former university president Homer Babbage publicly welcomed waterfowl being stocked to what had been a “duckless” pond. In the 1980s, the feeding of waterfowl and other human uses were outlawed. In the 2000s, the phoenix-like conversion of south campus sent its problems downstream.

The skin-deep grooming of Mirror Lake was a nice “back to school” gesture. Now what?