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An iconic story of recovery from nutrient pollution is the restoration of the heavily enriched Lake Washington in Seattle, Washington State. Originally an integral part of the municipal septic system, a diversion of wastewater in 1968 has allowed Lake Washington to return to what has been recently described as a natural and healthy state. Yet is it accurate to characterize a lake as “recovered” based purely on chemical measurements? Does a legacy of pollution linger on in the ecology of a lake system long after the lake has been given a clean bill of health?
Using paleolimological reconstructive techniques it is possible to compare pre-pollution and post-pollution communities of algae by looking at microfossils stored chronologically in the lake-bottom sediment. Use of this technique has afforded a test of the assumption that once pollution stress in a lake is alleviated, the algal communities quickly return to the pre-pollution state. Work on Lake Washington indicates that this does not always hold true. Instead, it suggests that a legacy of pollution persists in the algae and ecological community of the lake long after the nutrient levels have returned to normal.
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