OWASCO — Many people know his pontoon boat by now, but sometimes John Halfman pulls up to the Owasco Lake shoreline and gets inquisitive looks by sunbathers.
That happened Wednesday near Fire Road 20 in Scipio, when Halfman anchored and his small but mighty troop of science students got to work.
"Don't mind us!" he called. "We're just sampling your water!"
A professor of geolimnology and hydrogeochemistry at the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, Halfman has been monitoring the water quality of Owasco Lake since 2005. People are generally very cooperative, he said, about pulling up just feet from their docks. It helps to be tall, have a large beard and be friendly, he added, grinning.
With funding from the Fred L. Emerson Foundation and Cayuga County, he samples every Tuesday and Thursday (except for this past Wednesday due to the Fourth of July holiday) for the months of July and August on both nearshore and offshore points.
Director of the Finger Lakes Institute Lisa Cleckner joined Halfman on Wednesday to take algae and vegetation samples, too, while four students hired for the summer helped gather water samples.
The Wednesday outing marked the seventh collection day on Owasco Lake this season, and Halfman said so far, he's not seen anything unusual. He's seen some algae blooms, though not the toxic blue-green kind, a concern for Owasco Lake after last summer's blooms were so bad that algal toxins were detected in the treated drinking water.
At most of the locations, Halfman pulls back a green tarp revealing a rectangular hole in the middle of his boat. He drops a complex looking gadget into the water and as it lowers by a reel, Halfman watches it on his computer screen. He stops the reel just before it hits the lake bottom. At one of the deepest sites, about 50 meters down (or half of a football field, Halfman remarks), the machine collects water. Once Halfman reels it up, students get to work.
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Kate Homet, a rising junior and Dylan Doeblin, a rising senior, measure the dissolved oxygen, the temperature, the PH and alkalinity of the samples, things that have to be done immediately. The measurements will change when the water hits the atmosphere, Halfman said. Other samples are saved for lab work later to measure the amount of algae in the water and the amount of total phosphorous — one of the nutrients most linked to the proliferation of blue-green algae blooms.
Though the students change jobs from time to time, Wednesday Serena Bradt, a senior, was responsible for the plankton tow, skimming the surface of the water with a kind of net and packaging up what is collected. Davis Ryan, a rising junior, worked with Cleckner, focusing on water collection to monitor nearshore algal blooms.
While Halfman and his students were out on the water, physics student Joshua Andrews helped monitor the lake in a different way — using drones. With the assistance of Professor Ileana Dumitriu and Lab Technician Peter Spacher, Andrews flew the drone over the lake, using automated flight software to take photos of six specific locations. Spacher said using light wavelengths, they can tell whether algae blooms are regular or blue-green.
"It's much easier and less costly and more efficient," Dumitriu said about using the drones, instead of taking a boat to sample the water every time there may be a bloom. "It's really promising."
Every year, Halfman takes the data collected and creates a report on the health of the lake. Last year, Halfman had reported that Owasco Lake's water quality was improving, but harmful blue-green algae blooms were more toxic and more prevalent.
This year's bill of health remains to be seen.
As Halfman pulled away from the sampling site off of Fire Road 20, he waved to the audience on shore.
"Thanks guys," he said. "See you next time."