ContentsPutah and Cache: Clear Lake or Lypoyomi

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Data: The Lovely, the Flirtatious, and the Ugly

Pete Richerson

My most vivid experiences of Clear Lake come from being an applied scientist trying to help solve its problems. Most of my career has been spent on basic research, but I'd always wanted to try my hand at more practical matters. Opportunities arose to study the algal scum and mercury contamination problems and I took the opportunity.

I discovered that applied science is a more complex business than basic science. One part is the same, trying to understand how a piece of nature works. You can't very well help people solve a technical management problem unless you have some real understanding of the system at issue; applied science is science applied. Clear Lake is full of great scientific puzzles. Some, like working out the phosphorus budget of the lake, were quite straightforward applications of some well-tried limnology, though it was still quite a thrill when we could balance with surprising precision the flows of phosphorus in and out of the sediments. Four of us together put perhaps a year of work into that really lovely set of data. Some data flirt with you. The iron cycle in Clear Lake is critical because it limits the ability of bluegreens to use atmospheric nitrogen. Since the productivity of the lake is nitrogen limited, the whole metabolism of the whole ecosystem is regulated by iron availability. However, iron chemistry in natural waters is complex and plagued with methodological complexities. We do have some tantalizing data and pretty hypotheses to test, just not the resources to do the problem justice right at the moment.

Flirtatious data are often the source of creative new ideas. Nothing is more fun for a basic scientist than getting a lab or seminar room crackling with excitement as a neat, fresh idea gets its first appraisal by constructively critical, knowledgeable colleagues. But applied scientists, alas, haven't the luxury of taking such an insouciant attitude toward tantalizing half-truths. People are depending upon them to solve pressing problems, not play with slight, if pretty, notions. People's lives and the environments they live in will be affected by our recommendations.

Some data are ugly. Our organic mercury data, which turned out to be badly affected by a subtle laboratory artifact, led us to some seriously mistaken inferences about its behavior. We were seriously embarrassed when the artifact came to light, but our discomfort was modest compared to that of the lab that did the work. Their claim to be the state of the art was tarnished, but they would have gone broke satisfying irate customers who were paying a prince's ransom for flawed data. A scientist's nightmares are made of this.

Many citizens around the lake knew that studies of the bluegreen scum problem had gone on for years without any practical solutions being offered. They rightly fear that scientists left completely to their own devices will keep pursuing flirtatious data till the last piece of the puzzle falls into place. In the case of something as complex as a lake, the last piece will never be fit; science is the "endless frontier. This applied scientist's nightmares are populated with events like Clear Lake's slipshod fish introductions and DDD applications, when good applied scientists made large blunders. Is something as cross-grained as the biomagnification properties of DDD and methylmercury lurking out there to ruin my recommended action? Chasing your latest brainstorm has a lot of appeal beside committing to a recommendation that, down the road, might fall victim to someone else's lovely new data. Nevertheless, the time to act is now. If you are to be of any practical help, you must muster your courage and make the best recommendations you can.

Once I took to the people living in the place, I found it hard to use wilderness as the master measure of environmental quality around Clear Lake. The people live in and love Lake County even as they have removed most of it from the category of wilderness. While retaining as much area as possible in near-natural state and restoring really scarce communities like tule marsh and valley oak woodland should certainly be major objectives of management, I'm at least as concerned with the inhabited landscape that dominates the lake. The osprey nest in PG&E's utility pole at Rodman Slough is symbolic to me. Osprey and many other magnificent animals can tolerate humans as long as we take care to give them their necessary niches.

Making room for wild things in the nooks and crannies of the humanized environment is no sacrifice! Our spirits soar every time we see an eagle in flight or a child's eyes aglow over a beetle. The humanized environment cannot be wilderness, but it can be shared with wild and with beautiful things. If we hew too strictly to the wilderness standard, we must always fail, for even that which we preserve or restore can never again be perfectly wild. If we imagine, following the Pomo, that humans are part of the environment and that we have a special responsibility to balance the circle as a condition for living well in it, we set for ourselves an ambitious but achievable standard.

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