Steve McComas: The Lake Detective
A few years ago, when Chanhassen city officials wanted to find out why the water in Lake Susan was perennially murky, making the lake less enjoyable for swimmers, boaters and fishermen, they knew who to call.
They enlisted the help of the Lake Detective, also known as Steve McComas, owner of St. Paul-based Blue Water Science. Over the last 25 years, McComas has developed a unique niche advising lake associations, city governments and other relevant agencies on lake and pond-management issues.
McComas has been drawn to lakes since the age of 5, when his family vacationed in Brainerd. He also enjoyed the cluster of lakes around his hometown of Faribault. That affinity for lakes doesn't exactly make him unique among Minnesotans. But his aquatic experience and expertise makes him the one and only Lake Detective. (The colorful handle came from a 1994 Pioneer Press feature on McComas.).
McComas, who holds M.S. Degrees in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota and aquatic Ecology from Texas Christian University, founded St. Paul-based Bluewater Science in 1985, after several years of designing water treatment plans for a Chicago consulting engineering firm.
He garnered his first lake-sleuthing business by mailing fliers to lake associations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Gradually, McComas carved-out a niche in small-scale, lake and pond management and improvement techniques – such dredging and plant removal. He's collected his lake-management ideas in two books: Lake Smarts and The Lake and Pond Management Guidebook.
“My little niche is bringing the newest techniques and latest information to lake associations and cities,” he says, noting that many of his new ideas come from his work with lake associations. “The process has been somewhat incremental; every year we improve on what we've done before.”
Several years ago, McComas was hired to investigate the phenomenon of holes in the ice that appeared at several Minnesota lakes. He hypothesized that the cause was groundwater surges “with enough velocity to melt the ice.”
Within Minnesota, McComas estimates he worked on more than 600 water projects in 100-plus different lakes, including lakes Susan and Ann (McComas developed management plans).
In the case of Lake Susan, there were a couple of clues that led the Lake Detective to the cause of the murky water. “We were doing lake surveys (inventorying plants and wildlife) and noticed there were no plants in the lake – meaning it might be a fish-effect. When there are too many rough-fish in a lake, they remove all of the plants. Also, we found a number of depressions in the lake bottom, about the size of soup bowls – a sign fish had been feeding in those areas.”
After a few visits, McComas concluded that schools of rough fish – carp and bullheads – had been causing the murk. As bottom-feeders, they uproot aquatic plants and stir up the sediment at the bottom, which blocks sunlight and makes the water unhealthy for both plants and other fish species.
Efforts to remove the carp and bullhead populations seemed to solve the problem and the water cleared. In subsequent summers, the rough fish population rebounded, University of Minnesota researchers and Department of Natural Resources personnel have continued to work on the problem. McComas has moved on to other projects, after his initial help identifying the root cause.
In lake science, McComas says, “we’re finding that if we can better understand the biology of a lake, we can make lake improvements that are usually more cost-effective than building sedimentation ponds or other expensive structures. We can manipulate the biology.” Along with rough fish removal, another example of manipulation is adding barley as a carbon source for microbes in the lake, which help reduce phosphorus and algae growth.
Udai Singh, a Ph.D.-level water quality specialist for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, says McComas “has made some important contributions to understanding lake ecology. He has been a point man to educate the public about invasive, aquatic species. He is a consultant, but, at heart, also a scientist. He is always gathering information, compiling and putting-out data for other people to see and draw inferences. He’s both a trained engineer and ecologist, which makes him a very unique individual. He’s a real asset to the Midwest.”
In the land of 10,000-plus lakes, the Lake Detective doesn’t expect to run out of business anytime soon. There’s always another mystery to solve.
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