Posted on Nov 1, 1998

Ask John Garver, director of environmental studies, about the joys of stagnant water, and he is happy to tell you.

The stagnant water, in this case, is part of Ballston Lake, a three-mile long lake located a few miles northeast of campus. Although most of the lake basin is shallow, the lake has a small, very deep basin that is meromictic.

It's the last fact that makes Garver and his colleagues happy. Meromictic means that the basin's bottom water is anoxic, making it stagnant and a perfect natural classroom for environmental studies. The professors' excitement heightened when they received two grants from the National Science Foundation to study the scientific aspects of the lake in an interdisciplinary teaching collaboration. The NSF funds have been augmented by a Union grant for educationally innovative projects and by a Geology Department grant.

<Ballston Lake, believed to be 12,000 to
15,000 years old, is right for this kind of study because
it has evolved through the years, Garver says, sifting
through photographs of faculty-student winter sediment
coring expeditions. (In coring, scientists extract and
then study sediment they obtain by pushing a hollow,
four-inch plastic pipe down through the layers.)

“In terms of our understanding of
climate change, the formation and recession of glaciers,
land use, early habitation by indigenous peoples, how the
early settlers affected this area, and the modern effects
on the lake,” Union professors have enough material
to keep students from every discipline of environmental
studies busy for years, he says.

The money has allowed the Environmental
Studies program to purchase some impressive research
equipment. Garver and Professors Don Rodbell of Geology
and Paul Gremillion of Civil Engineering spent April and
May choosing their research tools after their NSF grant
was funded. Those tools include a twenty-foot pontoon
boat, which will be used as a floating classroom for a
variety of courses related to environmental studies; the
boat will let sediment cores and water samples be taken
without students having to get into the water. The
scientists have recently added several more scientific
gadgets to the boat, including a side-scan sonar to do
high-resolution mapping of the lake floor and its objects
and a sub-bottom profiler that can penetrate the
sedimentary layer so students can learn the acoustic
properties of sediment and how and where sediment occurs.

Already the side-scan sonar has
produced spectacular results. During a survey of the lake
in late August, the researchers saw the image of what may
be an automobile in the deep basin. Local stories suggest
that this may be the car that rolled into the lake in
1923; when it went in, it held the diamond wedding ring
of a person who was swimming at the time.

Obviously, this isn't your father's
college Earth Science class. It isn't even one of Union's
science classes from the 1960s, according to Ross
Sangster '61, a retired geologist for the New York State
Museum and Science Service and the state Department of
Transportation Bureau of Soil Mechanics.

“Oh, we had field trips back then,
but not like this!” Sangster says.

Sangster, who has lived on the lake
shore since 1966, became interested in the Ballston Lake
Initiative last winter, when he spied Garver and his
students taking sediment cores through the frozen lake.
He became so interested that the Union group now uses his
property for lake access and he has even loaned tools to
students. His reward is the opportunity to “go out
with the boat” for any class work that piques his

“Anything they find is interesting
to me as a resident of the lake and as a geologist,”
Sangster says.

The Union scientists say that the
future for science education lies in interdisciplinary
cooperation, an approach encouraged by the National
Science Foundation. Gremillion says, “The NSF is
realizing that the future of science lies in funding
science education rather than with just a few
high-powered scientists.”

Linda E. Cool, vice president for
academic affairs and the dean of the faculty, supports
the venture. “Collaboration like this will serve as
an important catalyst to promote teaching across
disciplines,” she wrote in supporting the NSF
application. Funding the Ballston Lake Initiative would
“significantly advance Union College's goal of
encouraging interdisciplinary teaching and learning as
well as fostering collaborative student/faculty

The Union proposal identified six
interdisciplinary projects — lake and wetlands flora and
fauna; watershed hydrology; hydrology and chemistry of
springs and spring communities; lake sediment record in
relation to lake evolution, climate change, and land use;
historical land use, including development of camps and
issues associated with water use; and monitoring
instrumentation for climate, lake water, and springs.

In addition to Garver, Gremillion, and
Rodbell, other faculty sharing teaching duties on the
lake are Grant Brown and Peter Tobiessen (biology), Mike
Hagerman and Tom Werner (chemistry), and Kurt T.
Hollocher and George Shaw (geology).

Scientists “cannot do lake work without working together,” Rodbell says. “It's
such a natural for interdisciplinary collaboration.”
Rodbell is a specialist in glacial geology who does
yearly research in Peru and Ecuador to study glaciers and
the ice age as it happened at the equator. His interest
in Ballston Lake is teaching his students about climate
changes, doing sediment cores, and studying the geologic
glacial changes of the lake.

“The lake is in a strategic
position for us to record the regional changes in
meltwater and ice position of the glacier that sat over
much of this region (during the Ice Age),” said

He says he will take as many as fourteen students in his “Lakes and Environmental Change” course each term to Ballston Lake to take the sediment cores, which will allow them to “see the human impact on lakes in the sediment.”

Gremillion is excited about what his civil engineering students can learn from Ballston Lake.
Students in his “Groundwater Hydrology” and
“Wastewater Engineering” classes will study the
quality of the lake's water, past and present.

He cited one case study where a
resident, years ago, drew water from an intake pipe
placed in the top twenty feet of the lake and another
placed below that level. The first pipe drew good quality
water, the second's water quality was “completely
unacceptable.” The second pipe had been placed in a
highly stratified zone of the lake.

“It's good for students to see
this. They can compare the water quality and try to
reason out why the quality is acceptable at the top but
unacceptable at the bottom,” Gremillion says.

Several seniors used their studies of
Ballston Lake for thesis projects last spring.

Jessica Newell, from West Charlton,
N.Y., presented the results of her investigation of
sedimentary cores taken from both ends of the lake at the
Steinmetz Symposium on Student Creative, Scholarly and
Research Achievement last May. Taking a five-meter sample
core, she found high values of metals in the upper
layers, which corresponded to the last 150 to 200 years.
Researchers in other parts of the world are finding a
tenfold increase in metal contaminants in the past 200
years — a dramatic indication, she says, of how great an
effect humans are having on their environment, especially
in lake systems.

The good news, she adds, is that it looks as though the last decade or so has produced much “cleaner” sediment — a clear indication that
our environment is getting cleaner.

Another senior who presented at the
symposium, Sally Hodges, of New Paltz, N.Y., found that
there is “surprisingly little” variation in the
water composition and water temperature where freshwater
springs emerge to the surface compared to adjacent areas.
Future studies on the springs will focus on the specific
spring chemistry and a comparison of that chemistry to
the Saratoga springs farther north.

Charles Moxham, of Calgary, Alberta,
Canada, examined the sedimentation in the southern part
of the lake. He found that sediment there has preserved
the biologic material and will be good for climate
studies and dating purposes.

So far, these three and about
sixty-five other students have used the lake for class
work, and Garver says he expects the number to get up to
200 students a year.

The Ballston Lake Initiative has caught
the imagination of the lake's residents. Desiree
Kelleigh, owner of the Good Times Restaurant on the
lake's northern shore, says that earlier in the century
the restaurant was a speakeasy and gambling parlor.
“Whenever they'd get wind of a police raid, they'd
throw the gambling machines and stuff into the
lake,” she said. She has seen other unnatural things
go into the lake — snowmobiles, and cars particularly,
the debris from the many races (sanctioned and
unofficial) held on the lake each year.

Garver says the cars usually go into the lake near the springs and are one reason for the interest in studying the human impact on water quality and the biological life of the lake.

“The movement of the spring water rushing through them, the carburetors, the lead in the gas tanks, etc., could be a problem for the lake,” Garver says.

The excellent bass fishing, which spawns several fishing contests each year hosted by the restaurant, is also due to the lake's springs, according to Garver.

“The spring holes have biological communities in them which are due to the minerals and nutrients in the spring water,” he says. “The small fish, especially the shrimp, found in the spring holes are probably what attract the bigger fish.”

The Union professors have established a collaboration with the science faculty at the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School. Since early last winter, the two groups have met to explore ideas concerning collaborative research projects, integrative field projects in environmental science, and possible college student-high school student mentorship. Dennis Bouchard, an earth science teacher at the high school, is excited about the impression such a collaboration will have on his students. “It will be amazing for our students to see research and what it really means,” he says.

He and Melissa Lombardoni, who was his intern from Union at the time, joined the Union group on the frozen lake last winter to help core lake bottom sediment. This sparked a series of workshops last spring on studying lakes and the environmental science of Ballston Lake for the high school faculty, which now includes former intern Lombardoni as well as Jodie Iannacone, a chemistry teacher, and Weldon Culp, a physics teacher.

“I'm hoping to use some of my freshmen next year to help Union with its monitoring,” Bouchard says. Garver plans to install monitoring devices in the lake that can be “hooked up” to computers at the high school. “By using the computer, students can collect the research for him daily and ship it to Union for analysis. This would be a natural for the younger grades,” Bouchard says.