North of Long Tail

A documentary photo series celebrating Lake Erie

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(left) Photo of an aerial image of East Kolkata Wetlands (photographer unknown). (right) Nandita holds a keepsake from India that depicts a woman drawing water from a well. Nandita purchased it when she brought students on a field trip to India to study water in the deserts.

For Nandita, drinking tap water was unthinkable: she knew that being careless and not boiling the water could be deadly. It was out of necessity that Nandita initially became interested in water quality.  She took a particular interest in Kolkata’s wetland system at the edge of the city. This area works as a natural purifier for the city’s waste, protecting the river Ganga. It is also an economic hub due to its aquaculture.

When thinking about where her love for science comes from, Nandita figures that her Dadu (grandpa) had a lot to do with it. Nandita’s grandfather studied physics but never worked in the field. Instead, he worked in an insurance company to support the family, but he never lost his passion for science. Some of Nandita’s fondest childhood memories are doing science experiments at home with her grandfather.

When thinking about where her love for science comes from, Nandita figures that her Dadu (grandpa) had a lot to do with it. Nandita’s grandfather studied physics but never worked in the field. Instead, he worked in an insurance company to support the family, but he never lost his passion for science. Some of Nandita’s fondest childhood memories are doing science experiments at home with her grandfather.

In 2001, Nandita moved to the U.S. to pursue a PhD at Purdue University focused on water quality. After receiving her PhD, she completed a postdoc in Florida, and then began her first professorship at the University of Iowa.

Nandita always loved Calcutta’s summer thunderstorms (Kal Baishakhi) as a child. She believes that this love stems from the fact that Calcutta had one of its largest storms on her birthday. When Nandita moved to the U.S. and embarked on a PhD, she learned that if you have a middle initial, it helps people find your research (especially if you have a common first and last name). Nandita had never had a middle name. For this reason, she gave herself the middle name “Brishti,” which means rain in Bangla, and it reminds her of those monsoon storms of her youth.

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(right) Nandita holds a passive sampling device used for collecting sediment and other pollutants that flow through a river.

In 2013, Nandita was recruited by the University of Waterloo, where she now works as an Associate Professor, and a University Research Chair of Water Sustainability and Ecohydrology. In this position, she studies the role humans play in modifying water quality and availability through changing land-use and climate. She also tries to provide innovative solutions to water sustainability challenges.

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(left) Nandita in her office at the University of Waterloo’s engineering building. (right) A greeting card from one of her team at the Basu Lab sits in her office.

Nandita’s research on the Great Lakes began with her move to southwestern Ontario. Her lab group, the “Basu Lab,” focuses on using models to discover how nutrients — like phosphorus and nitrogen —that cause harmful toxic algae blooms move through the landscape. They also use models to determine what types of management practices can be adopted to improve water quality. The Basu Lab is particularly well known for developing models that help answer the “legacy question”: If you stop applying a particular fertilizer (nutrient) to a landscape, how long will it take for the water quality to improve? She believes that discoveries stemming from the creation of these models will have important real-world implications regarding how best to improve water quality.

Nandita is particularly fascinated academically by Lake Erie’s history of demise and recovery.

The pollution and related algae blooms were horrible in the 60s and early 70s, resulting in the lake being declared dead.

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(top right) Nandita shows an example of a model her team has created to better  understand Lake Erie’s water quality problem.
A Maclean’s magazine article from 1965 titled “Death of a Great Lake.”

(top right) Nandita shows an example of a model her team has created to better understand Lake Erie’s water quality problem. (bottom right) A Maclean’s magazine article from 1965 titled “Death of a Great Lake.”

The lake's abysmal situation led to large-scale protests and the eventual signing of the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada. The agreement included a ban on phosphorus in detergents and significant spending to remove phosphorus from the water. This bilateral socio-political action led to real positive changes in the environment, and Nandita likes to highlight for her students this success story. As Nandita explains, environmental improvement is uncommon, so Lake Erie is an important case study in effective watershed management.

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(left) Nandita tries her best to make the concepts she teaches relatable and understandable. When Nandita teaches her students about surface tension in water, she demonstrates how the water behaves when you put it on glass compared to Teflon. This lesson is essential in showing students how water moves through different systems.

When Nandita talks to her students about Lake Erie’s water quality, she highlights Dr. Seuss’s book, The Lorax. In the first edition of the book, published in 1971, it reads:

“You’re glumping the pond where the Humming-Fish hummed!
No more can they hum, for their gills are all gummed.
So I’m sending them off. Oh, their future is dreary.
They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary
in search of some water that isn’t so smeary.
I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.”

In the 1980s, a team of environmental researchers contacted Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), informing him of the lake’s cleanup and how its health had improved. Dr. Seuss made sure to remove Lake Erie from all subsequent editions, creating a real symbol of this lake’s recovery.

Nandita holds a copy of The Lorax that she reads to her son Rayan.

Nandita holds a copy of The Lorax that she reads to her son Rayan.

It worries Nandita that, with Lake Erie, we seemingly haven’t learned from our past. In the last decade, algae blooms have come back in full force — although the reasons for this change aren’t entirely clear. Nandita explains how the current situation “is still a bit of a mystery” from a scientific perspective. She wants to help better our understanding of why water quality is deteriorating: Is it a particular form of phosphorus that has increased? Is the lake responding to a warmer climate? When trying to manage a problem, Nandita emphasizes that you must identify the cause of that problem. So, her team focuses on the main rivers that feed into Lake Erie and the streams that drain into them.

Nandita highlights how complicated this issue is in a region where agriculture is crucial to the local economy and the general way of life.

“We want to figure out how the communities around Lake Erie can thrive economically while reducing the nutrients that cause these algae blooms.”

Nandita will never forget a lesson she learned from her PhD advisor when she needed to model a watershed. Instead of having her immediately work with the data straight away, her advisor took Nandita out to a cornfield (in the watershed) and said, “you can only model corn after picking corn.” This experience stuck with Nandita. She wants her students to always remember how the data they use to model comes from real and complex natural landscapes.

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Nandita with her grad student Danyka Byrnes whose PhD focuses on nitrate in groundwater.

Nandita’s son Rayan (6) loves water and says that he, too, would like to be a scientist someday. Nandita says he is full of scientific questions, and sometimes she has to turn to Google. Once, when they were both looking into a mirror, Rayan asked his mom: “When we are close to the mirror, why do we appear bigger and when we move further from the mirror, why do we appear smaller?”

Nandita’s son Rayan (6) loves water and says that he, too, would like to be a scientist someday. Nandita says he is full of scientific questions, and sometimes she has to turn to Google. Once, when they were both looking into a mirror, Rayan asked his mom: “When we are close to the mirror, why do we appear bigger and when we move further from the mirror, why do we appear smaller?”

Nandita knows that Lake Erie’s health has significant social, political, and economic implications. With a changing global climate, Nandita says that we will likely see more and more algae blooms unless something changes.

Nandita and Rayan at the Laurelwoods Stormwater Treatment area near her home. She is interested in, and enjoys sharing with her son, how “green infrastructure” like stormwater treatment areas help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus and purify water before it goes into streams.

Nandita and Rayan at the Laurelwoods stormwater treatment area near her home. She is interested in, and enjoys sharing with her son, how “green infrastructure” like stormwater treatment areas help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus and purify water before it goes into streams.

“When a river floods, it floods, and you have to act and protect yourself, but when there is water pollution, you often don’t see it.” 

In the future, Nandita will continue to collaborate with ecologists, farmers, social scientists, economists, and other stakeholders in working towards sustainable water management. It is one thing to gather data on a particular environmental issue, but Nandita wants to figure out how to change people’s behaviour and improve situations.

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STORIES FROM THE LAKE

Patricia – Pelee Island

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Heidi – Pigeon Bay

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Take Action

Lake Erie and the millions of people who rely on it for their drinking water, local jobs, and so much more need your help.

The health of Lake Erie continues to decline. Action is needed more than ever to restore its health for current and future generations.

You can make a difference. Here’s how you can help protect the lake and support the people who are closely connected to it.

EXHIBITION BY: documentary photographer COLIN BOYD SHAFER in collaboration with ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE

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