Lake teems with life, history

Centennial Lake’s water and vegetation have been restored over the past 10 years. Above, a heron perches on the lodge of the lake’s newest occupants, a pair of beavers.

By Allie Ward
Strewn around the banks of Centennial Lake are woody shrubs and flowering plants, weathered and green with algae. A layer of film cakes the surface, the water slowly flowing down toward the dam at the south end.

Muck and sludge may seem to line the outside, but a dynamic environment of plants and animals flourishes all around.

To the untrained eye, the terrain appears untamed and overrun with growth. Many students, particularly non-science majors, believe the lake is contaminated.

“Whenever I walk by it, it always smells terrible,” said Rae Volinsky, a junior journalism major. “There’s always gunk lining the edges, so I don’t see how it can be very clean.”

However, those associated with a movement that began several years ago to restore the lake think differently. Dr. Jonathan Husch, Geological, Environmental and Marine Sciences (GEMS) Department chair, insists the lake could be a lot worse.

“I wouldn’t recommend swimming in it, but it wouldn’t kill you,” he said. “It’s a lot cleaner than other streams and rivers around here.”

Centennial Lake is home to a wide range of animals, including mallards, frogs, turtles, bees, snakes and butterflies. Recently, a colony of beavers built their lodge near the Fine Arts building (see Beaver Quick Facts).

The lake is cleaner because, a decade ago in the spring of 2000, a group of professors, students and environmentalists worked together to improve the water quality and rehabilitate the natural vegetation around the lake, which is purely a man-made structure.

“The lake was created by damming a branch of the Little Shabakunk Creek that runs through campus,” said Dr. Laura Hyatt, a biology professor. “Its watershed extends up to Route 95 and surrounding neighborhoods.”

Built in 1965 to commemorate Rider’s 100th anniversary, Centennial Lake sits in the center of the Lawrenceville campus just beyond the academic buildings and is about five feet deep at its maximum.

Randy Kertes, ’84, an adjunct instructor in GEMS, spearheaded the Centennial Lake Watershed Restoration project. He said the lake was originally built for two main reasons.

“It was constructed initially for aesthetic purposes and for fire protection,” he said.

Fire protection sounds outdated, but when the Lawrenceville campus was built, the hydrant system from Trenton didn’t extend this far. So, in the event of a fire, the trucks would have to come and stick the hoses in the lake and use it as an additional supply of water.

Husch was a part of the team that worked on Centennial Lake. He noted that flood control was another important reason the lake was built.

“Under all the storm drains on campus, there are pipes that run to the lake,” he said. “It’s a holding pond, a retention basin.”

According to Mike Reca, associate vice president of Auxiliary Services, it is Facilities’ responsibility to maintain the body of water and the grounds outside of the lake. It is the Science Department’s job to maintain the vegetation.

“We do not touch the plantings on the banks,” Reca said. “We maintain the outer area of the banks very similar to the rest of campus; we mow the grass, weed and prune the trees and shrubs. In the water, we maintain the fountains.”

In addition to an aesthetic appeal, the two fountains in the water are meant to provide aeration, Husch said.

“The idea with the fountains is if you spray the water up into the air, oxygen will absorb into the water, particularly during the summer when the lake becomes eutrophic, meaning the water at the bottom becomes very stagnant and oxygen poor,” he said.

For the restoration project, Rider received a $100,000 grant from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to restore the shoreline of Centennial Lake and reduce pollutants in the water. The project began in spring 2000 and was completed within a few weeks with the help of many volunteers.

“These funds were used to regrade and replant the shoreline with native plant species,” Kertes said. “Also, a variety of environmental educational programs were  implemented using the lake as a classroom, and many still continue today in the Biology and GEMS departments.”

A big part of the project included removing the concrete edge that used to surround the lake, something that had a major effect on the quality of the water.

“It’s a much more natural habitat than it was before when it was lined with concrete,” Husch said. “By creating a more natural boundary with all that vegetation and growth, you filter out some of the stuff flowing into the lake.”

Dr. Kathleen Browne, another GEMS professor and academic director of the Teaching and Learning Center, helped conduct long-term water quality tests throughout the restoration project and also was involved with the NJDEP grant. She explained that eliminating the concrete edges allowed for a riparian buffer to form.

“[Riparian buffers are] a natural thing that occur on the edges of water bodies,” Browne said. “Root systems stabilize the shoreline and prevent erosion and trash that could easily be swept into the lake, but the plant life prevents it from going in.”

In addition to removing the concrete — the remnants of which now line a stream that flows into the north basin of the lake — the regulation of the geese population on campus also played a huge part in improving the water quality.

“We had a huge Canada geese problem, just hundreds of them. You could not walk across this campus without stepping in their mess, so when it rained, all that organic material was just running into the lake,” Husch explained. “By controlling the geese population and also having that vegetation around the lake, it acted as a buffer, a filter. It has reduced the amount of organic material flowing into the lake.”

Browne’s research supports the conclusion that, since the restoration project, the water quality has indeed improved.

“Prior to restoration, there were many more instances of the lake turning pea-soup green, which meant lots of algae and too many nutrients,” she said.

According to Hyatt, the shores of the lake now contain a lot of vegetation.

“There are pussy willows, purple loosestrife, cardinal flowers, a lot of asters and milkweed growing around the edge,” she said.

Browne was most interested in creating a biodiverse wetland community.

“We picked different color flowering plants and designed a plan to take the biodiversity from zero to a very biodiverse community,” she said.

Though it may be perceived to be “too wild,” Kertes believes Centennial Lake is a good example of a natural resource fostering vibrant plant and animal life, and a benefit to the campus.

“Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

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