Thursday, April 15, 2010

I started my morning with a “Traditional American Breakfast”: fresh fruit (pineapple, mango, watermelon, and cantaloupe), eggs, a black bean paste, fried plantains, and toast with marmalade. This was such a large enough meal that I had the time to visit with a hotel staff member about Lago de Atitlan.

He asked about the expedition, and told me that lake is in terrible condition. He said that people from all over the world have heard about the bacteria in the water and they don’t want to come. Local pessimism could become one of the biggest barriers to keeping the lake clean, as there would be no motivation for making even little behavioral changes if there is no hope.

I stressed that there are many options for maintaining the quality of the lake, and that everyone on the expedition understands how important the lake is, for tourism as well as the quality of life for the people who live here.

He said there are many bad things being put into the lake, including waste water (“agua negra”), laundry detergent from people washing clothes in the lake, and agricultural pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. We then discussed options for each, including the constructed wetland in Panajatchel, phosphorous-free detergent which is now in markets here, and more efficient use of agricultural products.

As usual, lunch was the only time that most of the group gathered in the sample place. There are about 50 of us at this point.

Photo: Most of the expedition’s members enjoy lunch together.

After lunch, the lead scientists on this trip included the whole group in their daily discussion about the experiments being undertaken. The agenda was 1) updates from each work group, 2) needs from each work group, and 3) next steps. One significant next step was to sample for plankton at night. A plan was made to leave the dock with the large boat at 6:00 pm tomorrow night (Friday), and return at noon the next day. This kind of fan adventure was too good for the students to pass up and nearly all signed up.

On the subject of weather, it is supposed to be the dry season here. Most of us believed that, and brought light jackets and no rain gear. In fact, we’re experiencing cool weather and significant afternoon rain storms, including magnificent thunder and lightning.

After dinner, a group of students finally got the time they’d wanted with Rob Collison (UC Davis) to discuss wetlands and the potential of zeolite as a tool for removing nutrients from the watershed.

Photo: wetland and zeolite discussion

Bob Richards, UC Davis

This is a pretty “idealistic and naïve” thought, but why can’t the rest of the world get along the way we and the Guatemalans are here? Again, this reminds me of y research expedition trips to Siberia in 1990 and 1993. We all got along really well and the main ideological and political barriers came from our governments. They seem to believe control is their only way to retain power. That said … let’s move on to more important stuff!

I have not made an entry since the Houston airport partly out of laziness and partly due to the busy work schedule and long hours needed to accomplish our work. Except for the first days of unpacking and organizing all the equipment for the various projects and our orientation boat tour of the whole lake on Sunday, we’ve been going from before sunrise, with the boat leaving the dock at 6:00 am, until the winds rise at 11:00 am to 1:00 pm on the lake, and then doing lab work or whatever else needs doing until after lunch, followed by a lecture on a topic of interest (cyanobacteria, land use, local education, etc.), followed by more work.

The people here assisting us are amazing. They deal with every situation, and whatever needs come up to allow us to start and sustain our work, with enthusiasm and energy. They are available anytime to run errands, ferry us around from our hotels, Panajatchel, etc. Such cooperation is rare.

Additionally, the students that were selected to work with us are bright, motivated, very fast learners, a joy to work with and teach, and fun too! Some of our young people back home could learn much from them. Each group we’ve had doing boat work jumps right in to help and learn how to operate the scientific “toys” and they ask good, thoughtful questions.

Amazingly, almost all of the equipment we brought, and never had the chance to field test, is working out really well. On top of that, the weather has mostly cooperated and been predictable, except for an unusual amount of afternoon and evening thunderstorms before the official start of the rainy season in May.

Tomorrow is the start of another phase in lake work, emphasizing “paleolimnology.” Samples for primary and secondary production, algal taxonomy, water chemistry, and physical profile measurements will continue.

Four team members joined us today: Tina Hammel (UC Davis, specialty: chemistry), Alan Heyvaert (Desert Research Institute, specialty: benthic organism ecology), and Marion Whittman (UC Davis, specialty: benthic organism ecology), and Ellen Heyvaert.

Our group, including students, NGO and governmental personnel, and local partners, numbers at least 50!

We are becoming a small environmental “Army for Atitlan!”

Annie Caires, UC Davis

Today was a beautiful day and sampling went well. We collected water quality and plankton samples along a profile in the Bay of San Juan to 150 meters. We had a new group of students on the boat today, equally as impressive and interested as the last. Dr. Komarek found an abundance of microsystis in the bay here, but no lyngbia last night we deployed BOD bottles for Jessica’s experiment.

For me, this experience has been a great opportunity to learn various lake sampling methods along with the students. I continue to be amazed by the friendly, helpful nature of the Guatemalans. This is an amazing country and constant interactions with people here is a sharp contrast to the isolated nature of the United States.