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UP CLOSE: Meet Brendan Wiltse, chief steward of the AuSable River watershed

January 10, 2020
By ELIZABETH IZZO - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

WILMINGTON - Brendan Wiltse would love to work himself out of a job.

Wiltse, the science and stewardship director for the Wilmington-based Ausable River Association, is known for his reports on the impacts of road salt contamination in Mirror Lake. It's an issue of critical importance to the Lake Placid community, and his research on the issue has driven lawmakers to consider ways to protect the resource by paring down salt use.

"My number one goal right now is to stop being the guy that's telling everyone all the things wrong with Mirror Lake," he said, "and start being the guy that's telling everyone that, 'hey, we've actually turned things around.'"

Article Photos

Brendan Wiltse works at the AuSable River Association’s Wilmington headquarters on Monday, Jan. 6.
(News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

There's still a long way to go to mitigate the impact of years of stormwater runoff into the lake. A recent report co-authored by Wiltse and Adirondack Watershed Institute researchers Elizabeth Yerger and Corey Laxson shows that road salt and stormwater runoff has contributed to a discrepancy in water density between different layers of the lake. This discrepancy has disrupted the natural spring mixing cycle and created low-oxygen conditions that reduce the habitability of the lake for its lake trout population. Wiltse believes that mixing cycle can be restored if road salt application is reduced by 30 to 40%.

There are efforts underway by the town of North Elba and the village of Lake Placid to both reduce road salt application and measure how much road salt is dispensed by municipal trucks, providing valuable data to scientists such as Wiltse. What happens here has parkwide implications and could stand as a model for water quality protection around the country.

"I'd like to work myself out of a job and see that we're not having these conversations about these things anymore," he said. "If in five to 10 years our involvement - at least with that issue - is winding down, that would be a great success."

Road to AsRA

Wiltse, 35, grew up in the city of Watertown, outside of the Adirondack Park.

He attended Hudson Valley Community College and earned an associate's degree in environmental science, but it was when he transferred to Paul Smith's College that his interest in environmental science really blossomed.

"I had some really great professors there, particularly Curt Stager," he said. "He was one of my mentors when I was there, and he got me hooked on studying lakes, and particularly the history of them, which is what my graduate research was on."

Wiltse graduated from Paul Smith's with a bachelor's degree in biology and went on to study at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, where he earned a PhD in biology.

"I was in graduate school up in Canada, but working still down here in Lake Placid for the Adirondack Mountain Club - just because I love the Adirondacks so much, I couldn't get away completely," he said. "I was looking for an opportunity that would allow me to use the skills I developed at school here in the Adirondacks."

A position with the Ausable River Association happened to open up at the right time. He applied, and in 2014 he was hired as the association's stewardship and outreach coordinator. The next year, his title was changed to science and stewardship director.

It's a job that takes him to every corner of the AuSable River watershed.

Studying Mirror Lake

"I don't know that there is a typical day for me here," Wiltse said, from a conference table at the association's Wilmington headquarters on Monday, Jan. 6.

Some days he's out in the field, collecting water samples from Mirror Lake or one of the other 30 streams the association monitors. Other days, he's at the association's Wilmington headquarters, sitting in front of a computer, analyzing and compiling data.

"A big part of my job is communicating that science to all kinds of stakeholders and hopefully seeing that science used by those stakeholders to make our lakes and rivers either better or better protected," he said.

There are some challenges to clearly communicating the threats to the watershed. Simplifying complicated chemistry is a big one, he said.

But Wiltse loves his job. Despite his role as a director, he still gets to venture outside and work directly with lakes and streams.

"Often, when you get into more senior research positions you're spending less and less time either in the lab or the field, and you're spending more time supervising others or writing papers and working with data," he said. "But because we're such a small organization, I get to spend a lot of time outside still. I think that's really important. You learn about a place and an environment by being there and collecting water samples and that data, and that can be informative to your broader understanding of whatever issue you're working on."

Working with Mirror Lake in particular, he said, presents a unique opportunity.

"It's the center of Lake Placid. Out of all of the places that I've worked - and I've worked on dozens of lakes across North America - I don't think I've ever been somewhere where I can be collecting a water sample in the middle of winter and have, like, three or four people ice skate up to me, asking me what I'm doing," he said. "Or that I have to worry about hitting an Ironman athlete training with my canoe while I'm headed out to collect a water sample. It really does feel like it's the center of the community. There's people on it almost every day of the year, and often quite a few. You can see a lot of people enjoy it. And the views from the middle of the lake of the High Peaks, and Whiteface, are just stunning. It's a great little waterbody."



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