YELLOW BAY – Flathead Lake is one of the cleanest large lakes on Earth. In his final “State of the Lake” address Tuesday night, the longtime director of the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station will remind people how quickly that could change.
Crude oil from the Bakken oil field and Canadian tar sands now rumbles down train tracks next to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, and “one mistake there would be devastating,” says 68-year-old Jack Stanford, who is retiring next spring after 44 years at the biological station and 36 as its director.
“Those trains are loaded with the worst stuff there is,” Stanford says. “I can’t imagine anything worse than a multi-tank car dump in the Middle Fork. Some of those trains are 80 to 100 cars long.”
It’s not just the visible “sticky stuff” in a spill that poses a threat, according to Stanford. Tests done in British Columbia showed just one of the many dangerous chemical compounds in the crude, benzene, “will run ahead of the sticky stuff by many miles and kill everything in a river,” he says.
The B.C. study looked at what would happen in a pipeline spill, with the equivalent of approximately two tank cars dumped, Stanford says.
“We’re working with Burlington Northern to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Stanford says. “But it does happen. You read about another derailment or pipeline spill every few weeks. It just hasn’t happened here yet. I’m as worried about that as much as anything.”
Stanford will discuss other threats to water quality Tuesday at the Flathead Lakers’ annual meeting – from invasive species to nutrient additions – but his final “State of the Lake” will be less a yearly update than a retrospective dating back to 1977, when continuous data acquisition on the lake began.
The biological station director is headed off to retirement in Twisp, Washington, come May 31, 2016, with his wife Bonnie Ellis.
“After all these years living on a lake,” Stanford says, “we’re going to finish out our days on a river.”
Their new home will be on the Twisp River, and they’ll be closer to a cabin they already own on British Columbia’s Skeena River.
Ellis is a recently retired limnologist at the biological station who has done much of the research associated with Flathead Lake. Stanford is best known for his research on rivers that run with wild salmon.
His association with UM’s biological station dates back to 1972, when he was a student working toward his doctorate and one of only two people at Yellow Bay all winter.
Even when he took over as director in 1980, the biological station had a staff of two: him and a part-time secretary. It was primarily a teaching facility, and the station’s cabins filled with students and visiting professors during the short summer season.
But Richard Solberg, the dean of UM’s College of Arts and Sciences – and a former FLBS director himself – who hired Stanford wanted the emphasis to change, from teaching to research.
Under Stanford’s watch, it has – at times nearly 30 faculty members and staffers, many of the staffers scientists, have worked here at once, and their research has not been limited to Flathead Lake.
In fact, it spans the globe.
“Many of those people have dedicated the majority of their careers to the biological station,” Stanford says. “And it’s been the people who do the routine sampling and routine lab work that make people like me look really good.”
Yet, on the eve of his final “State of the Lake,” Stanford isn’t looking in a rear-view mirror to see what he’s accomplished at Yellow Bay.
He’s more excited about what his replacement will bring.
Arizona State University professor James Elser, whose tenure at Yellow Bay will begin Dec. 1 and overlap Stanford’s by six months, is “world-class in lake ecology,” Stanford says. “I’m very, very happy he’s coming.”
The biological station has seen a couple of faculty members move to the Missoula campus, Stanford says, and he’d been toying with retiring for a couple of years. He used the decision to finally do so to urge UM to conduct an outside review of the biological station.
“The university agreed that they needed to take a look,” Stanford says. “What the review found was this is one of the best biological field stations in the country, and the university needed to amp up support for it.”
UM “really stepped up,” Stanford says. “As they recruited my replacement, they said it would be accompanied by two faculty positions to backfill the capacity we had lost. We had a lot of applicants, and one really stood out.”
That would be Elser, who will have a joint appointment with UM, where he’ll spend nine months a year at Yellow Bay, and Arizona State, where he’ll be the other three.
“The affiliation with Arizona State, which is the biggest university in the country and where Jim is very influential, will be a good thing for FLBS and a great thing for the community,” Stanford says. “It will give us a lot greater visibility.”
In addition to returning two faculty positions to FLBS, Stanford says Elser was assured of having greater interaction with the Missoula campus, getting an assistant director for the station, having a position of education coordinator partially funded that would bring more students to Yellow Bay, and will be allowed to bring his own sensor expert – a whiz with the electronic sensors used to track water quality – with him.
“I’m very proud of the University of Montana for stepping up like it has,” Stanford says. “Jim will be able to take (the biological station) beyond where I was able to bring it.”
Those attending the Flathead Lakers annual meeting Tuesday, which is open to the public, will also hear from native plant expert Andrew Beltz, who will talk about the value of riparian buffers for water quality, and Aaron Clausen, who will talk about the Flathead River Steward Program and projects to restore riparian buffers along the Flathead River.
Polson residents Bob and Betty Moore will receive the Lakers’ annual Stewardship Award for creating a demonstration lakeshore buffer at their west shore home.
In addition to concerns over what a train derailment could mean to Flathead’s water quality, Stanford will look back on the effects of the introduction of mysis shrimp to Flathead Lake.
“That changed the lake more than anything in my entire career,” Stanford says.
The state of Montana was responsible, introducing the mysis shrimp in lakes upstream from Flathead. When the shrimp made their way into Flathead, it not only turned the fishery on its head, it jump-started algae growth in the lake.
“Since the late 1980s, the primary production (which measures water quality by how much algae is growing) in the lake has oscillated largely in response to the climate,” Stanford says. “In a big rain year it’s up, in a lower rain year it’s down.”
The drought may be one reason Flathead is very clear this year, Stanford says.
The drought is also responsible for the lake level being lower than normal this summer. That’s been a big help, too, Stanford says.
“That’s really helped, as we’ve always said it would, cut down on shoreline erosion,” Stanford says. “Just as a consequence of the drought, there’s much less re-suspension of sediments in the water.”
Flathead is at full pool when it’s at 2,893 feet, but it’s been closer to 2,892 this summer.
“I do not advocate it go lower than that,” Stanford says, “but shoreline that’s not protected erodes at full pool, and it always has. All it does is dirty up the water. If you take it to 2,892, 99 percent of the people aren’t going to notice a difference, but it will be better for the lake.”
Nitrogen levels in the lake are increasing, as they are in lakes around the world, due to everything from wild fires to automobile use, Stanford says, but phosphorus levels are declining. Like the nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers that green up a yard, the nutrients can green up a lake.
“You don’t want to do that,” Stanford says. “Wherever algae grows, clarity declines.”
His final warning will be to remain vigilant in the fight to keep invasive species out of Flathead Lake.
“We don’t want any more invasive species,” Stanford says. “Whether it’s zebra mussels or quagga mussels or walleye – who knows what it might be – the addition of nutrients and exotic species is a bad thing.”