Woodlawn Beach State Park

Geography and Planning Researchers Focus on Woodlawn Beach State Park

The only sound louder than the bullfrogs is the birdsong, and the June morning mist is fragrant with wildflowers. This could be a hundred miles away from civilization, but if you look above the trees, you can see windmills turning where Bethlehem Steel once stood.

Here, in the wetlands at Woodlawn Beach State Park, Buffalo State faculty members and students are collecting data. “The master plan for this park includes wetlands remediation,” said Stephen Vermette, professor of geography and planning. “But there is no information about the wetlands, so we’re establishing a baseline.”

Woodlawn Beach is usually closed after a heavy rainfall because the presence of E. coli makes it unsafe to go swimming. Wetlands remediation may be a tool to reduce the amount of E. coli as well as other pollutants, because properly functioning wetlands clean the water that travels through them.

Vermette received a grant of $9,940 from the Great Lakes Research Consortium to assess the physical and chemical characteristics of the wetlands. Charlotte Roehm, assistant professor of geography and planning, received a grant of $18,200 from the New York State Water Resources Institute at Cornell University to study water cycle dynamics within the wetlands and the spatial and temporal variability and transport pathways of E. coli. Vermette and Roehm decided to combine their projects and pool their resources. Although they are working together, Vermette’s research focuses on surface waters, while Roehm is investigating the movement and chemistry of the ground water.

On this particular morning, Vermette and two students collected data from five sampling sites. The information collected by Andrew Panczykowski, a senior, and Joe Petre, a graduate student, including the water’s pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen content. They also collected samples that will be analyzed in the lab to measure the presence of other pollutants including phosphorous, ammonia, and nitrates; metals such as iron, copper, and chromium; and E. coli bacteria. Thomas Reeverts, a graduate student, is also working with Vermette and Roehm.

The five sites were selected strategically, and two contain weather stations to characterize conditions just above the wetlands. The water is sampled when it enters the wetlands and again just before it flows into the lake. Inflow and outflow are important, because, Vermette explained, “For wetlands to work, the water has to move very slowly, allowing the plants to do their magic.”

The other sites provide information about the water in each of three distinct wetlands. Wetland A, the cattail wetlands, includes a weather station, where the students measures the pH of the water caught in the rain gauge. As usual, it’s less than the relatively neutral pH of the water throughout the wetlands, which means the rainwater is more acidic than the groundwater. Vermette explained that a high concentration of limestone in the Great Lakes region mitigates the effect of the acid rain on the lakes’ pH, keeping them from becoming too acidic.

There are few cattails in Wetland B. Instead, duckweed, which removes some of the metals from the water, is abundant. Water from Wetland C, where the vegetation is again different, shows a lower level of dissolved oxygen. Different aquatic species need different oxygen levels to survive. For example, carp—abundant in Blasdell Creek—need less than 1 mg per liter; other species, such as trout, need much more.

Above, turkey vultures circled for a few minutes before continuing on their way. Woodlawn Beach State Park offers three different habitats for bird life: the shore; the wetlands; and the forested area that screens the nearby railroad tracks.

These wetlands began to evolve in about 1966. Earlier photos show sand dunes with little vegetation, according to Panczykowski, who is researching the area’s history. Much of the ground appears to be fill, perhaps from the steel plant. The higher areas in the wetlands are sand, evidence of the dunes that remain a unique feature of Woodlawn Beach State Park.

The sampling takes two hours, a process that’s repeated once a week. Additional samples are taken two or three times a week. “Once our research is completed,” said Vermette, “we’ll be able to provide the park manager with ideas for making the wetlands work as well as they possibly can.”