Students help with acid rain recovery

It’s less of a problem these days, and DEC had only one pond on its list to lime. Paul Smith’s College students provided the muscle

Justin Shannon, a junior at Paul Smith’s College, empties a bag of lime onto Benz Pond amid snow, wind and freezing temperatures. Shannon said he came to PSC from a military school in Vermont to do more things like this in the wilderness. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“Come haw, Dale. Come haw. Whoa!”

Sara Dougherty, head of the Paul Smith’s College Draft Horse Program, was shouting commands — not at horses, though. She was leading a team of students, who were helping the state Department of Environmental Conservation raise the pH balance in a pond.

The initial plan was to have the college’s draft horse team, Lady and Fee, carry the 19 tons of lime out onto Benz Pond, on the eastern edge of the town of Waverly. However, the warm weather leading up to Feb. 27 made for poor ice conditions. Therefore, forgoing the equestrian pair, the students in the Winter Work Horse program and Dougherty’s other classes were put to work.

Dougherty was having a little fun teasing the students, coaching them like she would her trusty pair of horses. She said she was “bummed” to not have them at the work site on that day.

“The students are the horses today,” college Forestry Department Chair Brett McLeod said.

Madie Roth, a Parks and Conservation Management major in her second year at Paul Smith’s College, rides in the back of a UTV out to Benz Pond. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Last liming for now

The act of liming ponds is an old practice meant to reverse the effects of years of acid rain. It has become less common in recent years, since acid rain is not as harmful as it used to be.

At one point in the 1980s, around 700 Adirondack lakes and ponds were lifeless due to high acidity. The cause was chemicals in the smoke emitted by plants that burn coal and oil, especially sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Those emissions blew east on prevailing winds and fell on the Adirondacks in rain and snow.

From left, Dale Plant, Matt Wedge, Justin Shannon, Max Dentone and Mike Gaulin snowshoe on Blue Mountain Road toward Benz Pond as they help the state Department of Environmental Conservation lime the pond to make its water less acidic. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Environmentalists and the DEC thank government air pollution regulations for the turnaround.

“Ponded waters in the Adirondacks have benefited significantly from decades of rigorous state and federal standards designed to reduce the airborne pollutants that cause acid rain,” DEC spokesman Jomo Miller wrote in an email. “The New York State Acid Deposition Control Act (1984), the Federal Clean Air Act Amendments (1990) and the Clean Air Interstate Rule (2005) have all helped to greatly reduce these pollutants.”

Benz Pond has not recovered from acid rain, so the DEC is using lime to shift its water from the acid end of the pH scale. DEC wants to restore the pond to reinstate a brook trout population.

“The lime acts to buffer the acid rain by providing calcium to neutralize the acid,” Miller wrote. “Adding limestone is a simple way that can last for many years as the small stone particles break down. DEC hopes to get 20 years of buffering capacity from the lime application.”

The DEC does not have plans to lime any more ponds at this time.

A state Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries technician leads a sled full of 50-pound lime dust packages to Benz Pond, where she will empty the bags onto the ice to make the water less acidic. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“The DEC monitors approximately 20 waters in the Liming Program,” Miller wrote. “Benz Pond was the only pond that was scheduled to be limed.”

Getting there

The path to Benz Pond, Blue Mountain Road, is the dividing line between private property and state Forest Preserve land classified as primitive. Motorized vehicles are not allowed on the primitive side, where Benz Pond lies a couple hundred feet off the path.

From left, Paul Smith’s College Professor Brett McLeod and senior forestry technician student and barn hand Max Dentone throw 50-pound bags of lime dust into a sled. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“They were sort of at a loss for how to get the lime out there, so we were going to use the horses,” Dougherty said.

“Paul Smith’s College was close to the pond and had a team of horses that are used in a classroom setting to teach students how to pull logs in the winter,” Miller wrote.

However, the ice had become slushy, and if a horse’s hoof broke through a couple inches of ice, while it might not sink into the water, that would cause it to panic. They decided against using horse power that day.

Dougherty said this is another effect of climate change she has seen affect the draft horse world. She said some in the draft horse community have suffered as the sleigh ride season has become less reliable.

“I could basically write the book on how climate change is ruining sleigh ride heritage,” Dougherty said.

Paul Smith’s College senior surveying student and barn hand Caleb Cempa empties a bag of lime dust onto Benz Pond in late February. Cempa said he’d rather be doing this than sitting in an office that day. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Dougherty said she was excited to work with the DEC and hopes to do more work with them in the future.

“I like being outside”

At 9 a.m. two dozen or so Paul Smith’s students and faculty were snowshoeing and snowmobiling out to the site on Blue Mountain Road. On the way, one student stopped at a moss-covered tree, studied it and reached out to pull some old man’s beard lichen off a branch. They ate it.

“It’s got vitamin A,” said Clara Bisson, a sophomore.

When they reached the side they took turns pulling sleds up to a pile of 760 50-pound bags of lime, loading up and making the trek down the hill to the pond.

The mood at the pile was jovial. Students talked about the work, commenting that “it beats sitting in a classroom.” Teachers ribbed students good-naturedly, and DEC workers talked with students about the craft they are learning.

Out on the pond it was cold, snowy and windy, but the students all said they didn’t mind. They wanted to be there.

“I like being outside,” said Justin Shannon, a junior. “I don’t like to be cooped up in a classroom. I like to be hands-on.”

On other days, students in the Winter Work Horse program are out in the woods with Lady and Fee, dropping trees with axes and saws, and using the horses to skid them out.

Learning in nature is not the only reason students were there. Dougherty is a popular teacher for these students, and several said that they seek her classes out.

“I take every class I can with Sara because I really like her as a teacher,” Shannon said.

By the end of that day, students had moved all 19 tons of lime out onto the pond.

“Human power is just as strong as horse power, if you have enough hands,” Dougherty said.

They dumped the bags of dust out on the ice. When the ice melts in the spring, the lime will mix into the water.

Dougherty said the DEC has planned a barbecue for the students as a way to thank them for being horses for a day.


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