Water lilies invade KU’s Potter Lake

The surface of the lake is about half full of lily pads. The KU Environs student group is planning to organize a cleanup day for beautification purposes.

The surface of Kansas University's Potter Lake is about half covered with water lily plants, as seen on Monday, Aug. 27. The KU Environs student group is planning to host a volunteer cleanup day later this semester.

After a much-needed dredging in 2010 and a number of student-led clean-up efforts, Kansas University’s iconic Potter Lake has a new enemy this semester: water lilies.

The plant’s pink flowers may be nice to look at in small doses but they can be aggressive, said Scott Campbell, associate director for outreach and public service for the Kansas Biological Survey.

And once they are introduced to a lake — particularly a shallow one — they spread easily. Today, the plants are covering about half the lake’s surface.

“It sure has done well,” Campbell said, looking out over the lake this week.

The plants aren’t native to Kansas, and Campbell said he isn’t sure how they were introduced to Potter Lake.

Campbell stressed that the water lily issue is merely an aesthetic one, and that the dredging project took care of other, more serious, issues with the lake. The lake was slowly filling in with sediment, and the dredging removed nutrients that had washed into the pond over the last 50 years.

Campbell went to the water’s edge, and pointed out many tiny fish swimming in the lake.

“The water quality of the lake and the overall health of the lake have improved dramatically since the dredging,” Campbell said.

However, the dredging may have unintentionally scattered the water lily plants across the lake.

Now, they’re likely here to stay, he said. The plants are covering most of the water surface where the lake is 6 feet deep and shallower. They are perennial plants, and will require annual removal, he said.

Peg Livingood, landscape architect for KU’s Design and Construction Management office, said a group of KU experts in different areas are working on a long-term plan to manage the lake.

“It’s really kind of a volunteer effort by different groups on campus,” she said.

Companies exist that provide contracted lake management services, but KU in the past has eliminated that option as too expensive.

“We are all trying to do our best to make the best possible use of the funds we do have,” Livingood said.

Members of the Kansas Biological Survey, Environmental Health and Safety and Facilities Services are involved in the planning, Livingood said, in addition to members of the KU Environs student group.

The group has decided that it doesn’t want to introduce chemicals to the lake. Campbell said that option could be costly, and might kill desirable plants. It also would require re-application each year, he said.

In 2009, a group of students organized the Potter Lake Project after several fish kills occurred in the lake and a thin green scum made it clear action was needed. The original organizers of that group have graduated and the group is now defunct.

However, Kim Scherman, a Eudora senior and president of KU Environs, said her group agreed to take over some of the volunteer efforts necessary to help improve the lake moving forward.

“It could use some help,” she said. “A clean-up is definitely in order and we’ll talk about that soon.”

It’s still early in the semester, she said, so the group is just beginning to set its goals for the year. A work day likely would involve several students in boats scooping up the water lily plants by hand.

It’s quite a chore, she said, but the group intends to do what it can to make it fun (including providing food for the helpers).

She said the group hoped to organize one or two clean-ups each year.