By Deb Patterson
Paths of people cross in various ways. For the Wawasee Area Conservancy Foundation, crossing paths with Dr. Jerry Sweeten has resulted in a relationship and opportunity to gather data for future direction of the foundation.
Sweeten will be overseeing a watershed ecology study for WACF.
Sweeten and his team will place five sophisticated sampling gauges at the inflows of Dillon Creek, Launer Creek, Turkey Creek, Papakeechie outflow and Martin Creek as well as at the Syracuse Lake outflow of Turkey Creek, just past the Syracuse dam. The gauges will provide samplings daily to be analyzed for phosphorus, nitrogen, suspended sediment, dissolved oxygen and many other attributes.
It began several years ago when a student of Sweeten’s at Manchester University did an internship with Heather Harwood, executive director at WACF. Through interaction with the internship, they learned of projects Sweeten spearheaded and a door was opened. It wasn’t long after Sweeten retired from teaching in May, WACF officials contacted him.
“They called to talk about the lake and ask questions,” Sweeten stated, noting he was also in the process of starting a little business, Ecosystems Connections Institute. “The first time we sat down, I knew we were kindred spirits,” he said.
Sweeten has become the primary ecological consultant for WACF and along with Herb Manifold and Melinda Sweeten will be regular visitors to the Wawasee Watershed starting Jan. 1.
Sweeten, who was professor of biology and director of environmental studies for 14 years, was a teacher of environmental science for 25 years with the Marion Community Schools. During his time there every student visited Asherwood, a 160 acre forest, now owned by Acres Land Trust and is a nature preserve. It was during this time he received a call from his former Manchester College professor Bill Eberly, encouraging him to go back to school. He did and received his Ph.D from Purdue.
While at Manchester University, Sweeten did a lot of research. “I’m an experiential learner. The kids needed experiential learning and we started the Eel River study,” Sweeten said, which is in the backyard of the university. Studies included movement of nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment off agricultural fields into the Eel River, biological sampling, removal of three dams and installation of a prototype fish passageway at Stockdale Mill. He has also done studies for other agencies such as the Corn Marketing Council and Environmental Defense Fund.
So how did he get involved in biology and environmental studies? “It goes way back to my formative years, which is typical of people like myself. I was growing up outdoors, hunting, fishing, being outside. My grandfather had a small cottage at Bruce Lake in Fulton County. I would spend a lot of time there doing things kids do outside, serendipitous things. My entire life has been working outdoors,” Sweeten stated.
He stressed all of his work has been through partnerships. “That is one of the things I enjoy about WACF. They have the same thought process.” It was through partnerships Sweeten developed a conservation cultural bridge introducing students to the world of agriculture. The data provided by the students resulted in a huge appreciation by the farmers, they were able to see how much nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment they were losing. “Science opened up the conversation.”
Sweeten plans on using the same model at Lake Wawasee. “There are a lot of human endeavors on the lake … scientists boil the world down to numbers … provide the human dimension side.” He stated human dimensions is important and WACF is forward thinking and at the end will have a robust data set to make informed decisions.
He likened the studies he does to going to the doctor because you are not feeling well but cannot say where. Doctors run diagnostic tests to find out what’s wrong.
He has a mission statement for his work with WACF, “we want to provide professional environmental consulting and research services that reflect social, economic and environmental sustainability.”
Sweeten did note there is one thing he will not do. “What I won’t do is point a finger. The question is for the science side. The answer is complex. The human endeavor are those with an interest at stake – working or living within should be a part of the conversation,” he said, adding if there is good scientifically based data, there can be answers, without that data there is conjecture. “Everyone should have a voice.”