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Water feature mired in controversy

By Lesley Covington
Senior Staff Writer

The water feature has been a topic of debate since the death of numerous fish living in it last fall.            

Who’s responsible for the death of the fish in the pond? And should the fish have been there in the first place? These are only two of the questions still circulating around the campus community.

Just the facts

The water feature was originally intended as an aesthetic addition to campus, but became a home to coi carp and various kinds of turtles.

Photo by Ray Yip
The water feature was originally intended as an aesthetic addition to campus, but became a home to coi carp and various kinds of turtles.

“The pond takes up approximately two acres,” said Bess Tyner, University Engineer.  It has a rubber liner and a concrete lip, Tyner said.            

“Cost was one factor,” she said about the decision to use a black rubber liner instead of a concrete bottom.

“We did try to give it a natural look,” Tyner said.            

On a clear day, the water feature appears deeper than it actually is, according to Steve Martin, University Architect.

“It’s become one of the focal points on campus,” Martin said.            

The grounds department maintains the water feature, he said. According to Martin, the water is fed from a well and has a lot of iron in it.

Some students are unaware of the chemicals that are placed into the water feature on a regular basis, he said.            

“Our directive is to keep it clean like a swimming pool,” Martin said. “Any chemical that you introduce will hamper life. The original intent of the water feature was beautification and not to support aquatic life.”

Wildlife encroaching

How the fish got in the pond to begin with is an unsolved mystery.            

“I’m assuming that students are not putting fish in the water feature knowing that they’re going to die,” Martin said.

According to Martin, the coi carp were not native fish of this region of North Carolina but have been sold in the United States for years.

Other wildlife has been seen in and around the water feature.            

“I did see at one point a heron,” Tyner said. Tyner also saw an egret once.

Robert Wolf, serials librarian at Sampson-Livermore Library, said he has seen numerous turtles in the water feature since the death of the fish. He has seen two yellow-ear sliders, one red-ear slider and a snapping turtle.            

“These are the kind of turtles that people keep as pets,” Wolf said of the sliders. “They don’t get huge.”

He hasn’t seen them in a few months, he said.            

“They could leave if they wanted to,” Wolf said.

Fish kill

Dr. Patricia Sellers, assistant professor in the biology department, said she specializes in aquatic systems and defines the event as a “fish kill.”            

According to Sellers, the coi carp died because they were unable to breathe naturally under water.

Algae in the water most probably were killed in mass quantities and bacteria fed off the decomposing plant-life, she said.

As the bacteria consumed more oxygen, the fish went without.

“Apparently the fish were coming to the surface and gulping air,” she said. “When fish die from lack of oxygen, there was oxygen being consumed.”            

Wolf confirmed that the fish were gulping air at the surface of the pond.

Debate continues over whether an algaecide or laundry detergent caused the death of the fish.                

“I don’t know what precipitated the fish kill,” Martin said. “I don’t know if it was chemicals introduced from routine maintenance or introducing detergent.”

Copper sulfate is used regularly in the maintenance of the water feature.            

“That’s what cleans up the water,” Martin said.

The chemical is not designed to support aquatic life when used in large quantities, according to research. According to one article published in 1993, it kills algae as well as fish.            

“Copper has been used for many years as an effective algaecide in farm ponds and in aquaculture operations,” said the article titled “Managing Iowa Fisheries: Use of Copper Compounds in Aquatic Systems.”

“But with its use only a thin line separates effective algae-treatment levels from lethal overdoses to fish,” the article said.            

While coi carp is the primary inhabitant of the water feature, egrets and herons have also been seen visiting it. Yellow ear slider turtles and snapping turtles have also been seen in the water feature.

Photo by Jessica Bernier
While coi carp is the primary inhabitant of the water feature, egrets and herons have also been seen visiting it.  Yellow ear slider turtles and snapping turtles have also been seen in the water feature.

Sellers did not support the detergent theory.

“I would not think that a box of laundry detergent would decimate the fish in such a short period of time,” Sellers said.            

But who killed the fish may be a moot point.           

It doesn’t matter who killed the fish, Wolf said.            
           
“The damage was done,” he continued.

Should the Biology Club be involved in maintaining aquatic life in the water feature? The question was brought before the Student Affairs and Campus Life Committee of the Faculty Senate after the fish kill.

What’s next?            

“I think it would be good to get the students involved,” Wolf said. It could give them practical experience for outdoor and laboratory work.

“I want it done right one way or the other…so that we don’t have this happen again,” he said.            

One question still remains. If the turtles are still alive and hibernating in the water feature, what should be done with them?

There is a pond designated for aquatic life and monitoring by the Biology Club, according to Sellers and Martin.            

The pond adjacent to the Pinchbeck Building, behind Village apartments, was once used for this purpose.

According to Martin, it was turned back over to the campus at least two years ago.            

“They’d probably be fine there,” Wolf said. “But how you’re gonna catch the turtles I don’t know, especially the snapping turtle.”

He said he’d like to have someone check them for diseases and damage.            

“I would want someone knowledgeable, someone who could do it without hurting the turtles,” he said.

According to Martin, “education and communication” will be necessary to prevent another fish kill from happening in the water feature.            

“Facilities management intends to better educate the campus community on the water feature and other campus projects,” Martin said.

According to Martin and Tyner, the water feature was designed with beautification in mind.            

“I hope that everyone enjoys the aesthetic quality that the water feature brings to campus,” Martin said.

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Updated: Wednesday, February 21, 2007
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