Visiting Lake Mburo National Park in southwest Uganda was a welcomed break from my volunteer work and research in a nearby district in August.
The park encloses more than 140-square miles of protected lands, with a 30-mile long wetland system of 13 lakes and wetlands surrounding the park, and has five lakes within park boundaries.
The largest of the lakes, Lake Mburo, has an average depth of only 10 feet. The hillsides and swamps drain into the lake, providing habitat for fish, birds, hippos and crocodiles.
Despite many differences, CWC Conservationist Deb Naybor, left, and a conservationist/wildlife ranger at the Lake Mburo National Park in southwestern Uganda, find a connection in their concern for water quality and natural shoreline habitat.
There are various legends about the creation of the lake, including the story of two brothers, one of whom resided in the hills and another in the valley. In a jealous rage, the older brother brought heavy rains which flooded the valley, drowning his younger brother, Mburo.
A conservationist and wildlife ranger on the tour I took at the park explained that the heavy brush around the edge of the lake provides insects that support fish near the edges of the lake, as well as an amazing bird population which includes more than five species of kingfishers, many herons and a large population of fish eagles.
While 90 percent of the perimeter was covered with natural vegetation, a section of about 700 feet had been cleared for a boat dock, a restaurant for tourists and the conservationist's office. Another area was being cleared of trees and brush nearby.
Knowing that the rangers had been trained to appreciate the value of a natural shoreline, he explained that the loss of vegetation had been justified by the creation of a place to attract large mammals that could be viewed by tourists. The area already had piles of litter along the shoreline, and it was sad to see the acres of cut trees and cleared brush piled up for burning.
Miles of game-drive tracks, many lodge-viewing blinds and platforms, and a series of dirt roads crisscrossing the park lands allowed viewing of these mammals from various viewpoints, yet tourists wanted to be able to see them during the lake tour. The pressure to attract ecotourism dollars in developing countries is intense, but the understanding of the critical importance of protecting the environment which draws in visitors is also built into park policy.
I talked to the ranger at length about the challenges faced in the Chautauqua Watershed and our loss of natural shoreline. Despite our differences, this Ugandan wildlife ranger and I were connected by concern for water quality and habitat.
While Chautauqua's waters support sport fishing and recreation, the Lake Mburo waters support much needed income from tourism and commercial fishing. While he saw the algae-filled waters (in part supported by hippo droppings) as a positive sign of healthy waters, much time, effort and expense is expended trying to keep our waters crystal clear.
Understanding the ecology of fresh water is complex. Chemistry, biology and physics are all involved in water quality and the health of the watershed. Although water clarity has been rated as most important by property owners in judging the quality of fresh water, it's not an accurate indicator of the health of lakes, streams and ponds. Lake Mburo's cloudy brown waters are not conducive to swimming (of course, the crocs are a huge deterrent), yet the lack of pollution, the filtration of the wetlands and the protected shoreline keep the waters healthy. The understanding of balance between economic needs and the environment is difficult, but damage from overuse reduces value and can take decades to reverse.
The Chautauqua region has had intense study to determine the causes of water-quality problems and has come up with plans to improve our waters. Hopefully the Ugandan park service will have the same advantage some day. But for now, they must count on good environmental practices and limited development to protect their life-giving waters. Our own watershed needs these same holistic practices and the participation of the people within the region to eliminate further damage and give the waters time to heal.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands, and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or call 664-2166.