An elderly gentleman watches as a curly-haired child tosses stale crusts to the ducks and geese waddling noisily around her feet. A glossy spaniel zigzags through the water, splashing swimmers in the shallows. A charming lakeside scene.
Off with your rose-tinted specs for another look: A plump family of rats huddles in a nearby clump of reeds, waiting their turn at the bread. The geese and ducks are leaving blobs of slimy green ooze all over the sand. Unnoticed by its owners, the spaniel also makes a solid waste contribution along the shore. And on the water lies an evil-smelling blue-green scum.
Cynical, I know. But have you visited one of our beloved urban or suburban lakes recently? Swimming beaches at Lake Ronkonkoma, in Suffolk County, N.Y., are routinely closed after heavy rains because the runoff washes in high levels of fecal coliform -- the bacteria present in feces. Every summer, swimmers in Minneapolis-St. Paul's 200 or so lakes succumb to a waterfowl-borne parasite known as "goose-poop" rash. And Seattle park officials are struggling to preserve the city's ever-greener Green Lake, which means shipping more fresh water in and moving waterfowl out.
The problem is that we are loving our lakes to death.
A natural cycle of life and death and decomposition recycles nutrients in a fresh-water system. When a lake gets overburdened with waste, the system gets out of whack. The decaying wastes soak up oxygen in the water, leaving none for fish. The excess nutrients trigger excessive algae growth that soaks up even more oxygen as it decays. The water becomes rich, swampy and green.
The nutrients are coming from a number of places: Huge waterfowl populations that used to migrate now stick around, getting fat on bushels of stale bread brought by well-meaning bird lovers and contributing their waste to the water. Dogs are allowed -- even encouraged -- to relieve themselves in park areas along the shore. Swimmers urinate in the water. And homeowners in the drainage areas lavishly fertilize their lawns, which means fertilizing these already-too-rich lakes in the process.
The people who can do most for urban lakes are those who live around them -- homeowners within the lakes' watersheds. But visitors can make a difference, too. Kevin Stoops, project manager for Seattle Parks and Recreation Department's Green Lake, recommends some simple rules of lakeside etiquette for those who would like to preserve our cities' precious bodies of water (the editorial remarks are my own):
* Don't feed the ducks and geese. Believe me, they will find plenty to eat, and if they don't, they'll migrate south where they should be during the winter anyway. The proper way to dispose of stale bread is to compost it with your other kitchen scraps. Failing that, try the trash.
* OK. If you must feed the ducks and geese, just feed them a little, and do it far away from swimming beaches. Though their feces will still be feeding the lake, this may help cut down on "goose-poop" rash.
* Pick up after your dog. Animal feces on shore are inevitably washed into the water in runoff after heavy rains. If you walk your dog near a lake, pond or stream, always carry a pooper-scooper or a plastic bag with you, and use it.
* Obey signs. Chances are, signs prohibiting this or that were put up for a good reason. Many wetland areas are too fragile for running or biking, for example, and signs may be posted asking you to refrain from these activities. Urban and suburban lakes and ponds are priceless to those of us who live near them. Treat them accordingly.