According to local lore, ocean researcher and SCUBA inventor Jacques Cousteau got his start diving in the Northeast Kingdom town of Barnet in 1920. And now, researchers are exploring that same lake bottom to learn more about the role aquatic plants play in lake health.
The story goes something like this: As a child, Cousteau and his brother – two boys from France – were sent to Camp Connebuck, a summer camp on Harvey’s Lake. Cousteau suffered from asthma, and the fresh Vermont air was meant to do him some good.
But apparently Cousteau wasn't the best-behaved camper, and as a punishment, he had to clean up underwater sticks and debris at the end of the camp's dock. Legend has it he used the hollow reeds he found as breathing tubes.
Fast-forward to today, when four women with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation don full snorkeling gear as they explore that same lake bottom. They float above — and in the case of the tall, forest-like pondweeds, swim through — the same plant life Cousteau likely found in Harvey's Lake.
Kellie Merrell is an aquatic ecologist with the Lakes and Ponds Management and Protection Program. She said Vermont has done a good job keeping track of chemicals like phosphorus in the state’s waterbodies, but that’s only one part of water quality monitoring.
"The Clean Water Act has this grand goal of maintaining and restoring the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters," Merrell said. "And we’ve done a really good job at the chemical part. But for the biological integrity part of it, we don’t have as good a handle on that."
Merrell and environmental scientist Leslie Matthews have been diving into different Vermont lakes all summer long (about 50 so far). They document what they see — the plants, macroinvertebrates and a type of algae called diatoms that signal changes in the water quality — and then they compare that to whatever historical data may exist.
Merrell said the work they're doing in Vermont is modeled after a program developed in Wisconsin.
"Wisconsin has done surveys on at least 500 lakes or so, where they developed from that a way to use aquatic plants as indicators of lake health," she explained.
Matthews said they want to know how lake plants might help combat increasing phosphorus levels in lakes.
"One of the things that we are interested in going forward, Kellie and I, is how much the aquatic plant community absorbs nutrients and can be a buffer against the increasing phosphorus," she said.
Merrell said invasive aquatic plants like Eurasian watermilfoil seem to have given all aquatic plants a bad rap in Vermont. But native plants perform many important functions, including providing fish habitat, settling out suspended materials in the lake, and feeding animals like moose – as well as absorbing phosphorus.
Part of the Lakes and Ponds Program's role is to work with lakefront property owners to keep the native plants in the water. Lindsay Miller is the program's lake and shoreland regional permit analyst for the northeast part of the state.
"When I get questions about, like, 'Oh, can I pull these plants out? I’d like to pour some sand in,' things like that, I try to convey to them how important this area is and how it’s really kind of the nursery for life in the rest of the pond," Miller said. "And so a lot of the data that Leslie and Kellie collect is a reflection of that."
Watershed planner Danielle Owczarski has been thinking about ways to change negative perceptions of native lake plants. She thinks promoting diving and becoming acquainted with what's under the surface – the darting yellow perch, the ghostly water lillies bobbing at the end of long, green tendrils – may be the key to changing some minds.
"We’re all like, 'Ew, it’s gooey and yucky,' when we’re just walking through it," she said. "But you put on a wetsuit. You know, you protect yourself from all those things that you think might be scary, and you put on the snorkel and goggles, and you’re in like a totally different underwater environment that just feels so secret and special."
After all, it was enough to inspire underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau nearly a century ago.