UP CLOSE: Meet Mirror Lake’s watershed steward

Sophie Morelli is seen here at the municipal beach on Mirror Lake in Lake Placid on Tuesday, June 1. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — Lake Placid native Sophie Morelli has fond memories of working on her Regents exams in high school and, after completing them, leaping into the cool water of Mirror Lake.

The 23-year-old has had plenty of chances to enjoy this waterbody at the center of the village while growing up here. Now she has the opportunity to help protect it.

Morelli, a 2016 Lake Placid High School graduate, has been chosen as Mirror Lake’s first-ever watershed steward, a new position created by the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College thanks to some funding through the North Elba Local Enhancement and Advancement Fund. This past weekend was her first of the season at Mirror Lake. Locals may have spotted her in Peacock Park, close to the municipal beach.

This isn’t Morelli’s first year as a steward. She’s worked at other Lake Placid boat launches through AWI for a few years.

“There’s obviously not as much boat traffic (at Mirror Lake) than maybe the other places on Lake Placid, but I’m really happy that we get to have someone here, and I’m happy that person is me,” Morelli said on Tuesday, June 1. “If there were anything that would inhibit our lake, that would be so sad for all of the local people and, of course, the tourists.”

It may seem a little strange that someone who studied English and secondary education at SUNY Potsdam — and who released her own book of poetry, “Bad Habits” — may be doing this job, but Morelli said she’s always been interested in conservation and the environment. Serving as a watershed steward through AWI has allowed her to learn about something she wasn’t able to at Potsdam.

“This has been something that’s really valuable to me and really supplemental,” she said. “Everything I’ve learned about this job, I feel that’s information I can use for a long time.”

Mirror Lake sees exclusively non-motorized boats, so the threat of invasive species is somewhat diminished. Invasive species are easier to spot on non-motorized boats because there are fewer nooks and crannies where they may be latched onto the boat — no propellers, no motors, no bait wells, according to Morelli. Though the threat is lessened, it does exist. Morelli’s arrival at Mirror Lake comes after a boating season that saw a record number of people taking to local waterbodies, according to AWI.

“In the 2020 season, we saw a 25% increase in boaters compared with 2019, and we anticipate another busy season at the launches this year,” Dan Kelting, executive director of AWI, said in a statement. “We have a great group of dedicated and committed seasonal staff working hard to protect our waterways and helping the public take precautions against the spread of aquatic invasive species.”

Morelli has been trained to look out for a variety of invasive species, but a few common ones that might be seen in this area are Eurasian watermilfoil, spiny water fleas and zebra mussels. Even if a boater is just moving from one Adirondack lake to the next — such as Lake Placid lake to Mirror Lake — there’s a chance of spreading invasive species from one to the other.

“Once they get into an area, especially when they’re not native, they don’t have any natural predators, so they can just spread super, super quickly and just take over the ecosystem of a lake,” she said.

This matters because of the impact on the environment and the native wildlife population, but also because there’s the chance it could impact recreation and property values.

“If an invasive is taking over a dock, it can really decrease property values,” she said. “It really is important to keep them away from new waterbodies because it affects the environment in so many ways, more than people realize.”

Morelli’s boat inspections aren’t mandatory, but according to Morelli, most people have been very receptive. At Mirror Lake, the inspections are a quick process. She asks boaters questions, such as the last waterbody they were paddling.

“We’re really not trying to hold people up and keep them from getting in the water,” she said.

If a person does have an invasive species on their boat, Morelli can point them to a free boat decontamination site just a few minutes away, at the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s boat launch at Lake Placid lake.

“There’s a lot of boats that come in and out of this area,” Morelli said. “It feels really cool to be taking one extra step to keeping the lake a little cleaner.”

Morelli will be stationed on Mirror Lake from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends this summer at Peacock Park near the tennis courts.