Monday, August 13, 2018

Lakeshore Property and Conservation: A Quick Dip in the Lakes of the Northern Red Cedar

I spent much of this summer driving around with my research partner, Lucia, listening to NPR and sharing our favorite playlists as we shuffled around the Red Cedar Watershed on our way to interviews. As someone who takes a keen interest in the experiences of others, I joined the LAKES REU to partake in qualitative research, which is a fancy way of saying research that focuses on ideas, opinions, and motivations rather than hard numbers. For our research, Lucia and I interviewed twenty-three stakeholders across the watershed: nine farmers and 23 property owners.

While I enjoyed immensely the time I spent with the farmers we interviewed, in terms of my final project, I focused on lakeshore property owners and other stakeholders on the lake. In our interviews with these folks, we asked about their history in the area, regular use and common maintenance practices, sense of community, sources of information, the impact of water quality, and wetland restoration.  We designed the interview guide with the hopes of learning more about how the private property around the watershed's lakes is being used and maintained in terms of land use and water quality. 

In our initial search for interviewees, we contacted via email the president of every lake association and lake district* in both Barron and Dunn Counties with a brief introduction and an attached PDF detailing our credentials and the purpose of our research. We encouraged everyone we contacted to pass our information on to their constituents or other parties who may be interested in being interviewed. Because we were limited to the eight weeks we had in Menomonie, we had to limit the interviews to weeks 3, 4, 5, and 6. Once the interviews were scheduled, Lucia and I would meet our interviewee at a location of their choice, most often their own home (or lake property); we would then record the interview with permission, transcribe it using online software, and code it for themes. Coding basically entails selecting a section of text, and attaching a particular "code word" that easily identifies the theme it represents, making it easier to find for later analysis. Because Lucia and I were present at every interview, transcribed a majority of the interviews ourselves, and coded as well, we were very familiar with the material by the time we created our respective posters. 

During this process, I identified a number of themes that I wanted to explore and expand upon with my poster--my results, if you will. The first is the importance of a tangible sense of community in terms of water quality maintenance. The stronger the sense of community, the greater the participation in lake initiatives, providing more positive outcomes—both in terms of neighbor relationships and lake programs. Furthermore, the better people knew their neighbors, the more likely they were to care for water quality, which in turn meant that they were more likely to be actively involved in lake policy and programs, thus creating a positive feedback loop between community and participation. The second is the difference between the efficacy of lake districts and lake associations. While lake association membership centers around voluntary participation, is dues-based, and has no regulatory teeth, lake districts are units of government that are mandatory, funded by tax dollars, and have the capacity to push some regulation. Because lake districts are funded via tax money, they had more money to invest in water quality whether that be algae blooms or invasive species. The third is the geography of water quality: as our interviews progressed from south to north the profile of interviewee priority shifted from the problems caused by cyanobacteria (the green, stinky blooms) to those caused by invasive species. As a result, a majority of their resources targeted invasives. 

Throughout this process, we also identified the common maintenance trends that were practiced by property owners, as well as thoughts on wetland restoration. Every lakeshore resident we spoke to mowed their lawn, which has the potential to increase the amount of nutrients entering the waterways if grass clippings are not managed properly. Many interviewees also fertilized their lawns or applied some sort of herbicide to control weeds, which enters the lakes and streams in the watershed via runoff and can damage fish and other aquatic vegetation. In terms of wetland restoration, which centers around the growth of emergent aquatic vegetation, many interviewees were aware of the ecological benefits of wetlands, but were unaware of how they had been denigrated in their own lakes, or how they would go about restoring them. Reducing the number of mows per summer and managing grass clippings appropriately, limiting the amount of fertilizer and herbicide applied to lawns, and allowing buffer strips and emergent vegetation to grow are best management practices for lakeshore property. 

In addition to the complex dynamics of the ecology and geography of the Red Cedar Watershed, I learned a lot about myself this summer and the kind of academic I aspire to be. In our conversations with farmers, I learned how important it is to be a researcher who listens with tact, thoughtfulness, and compassion. I am interviewing these people to learn more about the story they have to share--not to judge, critique, or insert my own opinion. As it turns out, it actually is possible to disagree with a person's politics and the choices they make with their vote and still listen respectfully with compassion. I am grateful to all the folks who were kind enough to sit down with us this summer to share their experiences, we could not have done this research without them. I learned so much more from the conversations I had with farmers this summer than I could have ever expected, and I hope they enjoyed talking with us even a fraction as much as I enjoyed petting their dogs. It's been a great summer, thanks for reading!

*That was listed on UW-Extension

Can You C Yano Bacteria? (Can you see any bacteria?)

This summer, I researched how various sediments within the Red Cedar watershed effect the growth of cyanobacteria. Lake sediment was compared with bedrock sediment, meaning crushed rocks were used as sediment for treatment groups. The motive behind this was that if (climate change induced) storm events were to increase the weathering, or erosion of bedrocks, would this continue to increase cyanobacterial growth. The hope was to understand if all agricultural phosphorous runoff and urban runoff were to be completely stopped, would bedrock nutrients continue the growth of cyanobacteria in eutrophic lakes. This cyanobacteria I am referring to is also known as blue-green algae; however this name is misleading for they are bacteria a type of photosythetic bacteria. Not all species of cyanobacteria are indicators of poor water quality, but the ones that are can sometimes produce toxins hazardous to people and animals when they are in a high enough density and in the process of eutrophication they have the ability to unstabilize the balance of the once healthy aquatic ecosystem.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Technology in the Lakes

This summer I worked with a wonderful group of people in efforts to clear the horrible smell that came with Lake Menomin.   While, of course, we did not eradicate the issue we all did continue to make strides towards this final goal.  Below the surface of the lake there is an accumulation of phosphorus rich sediment that we call the legacy.  It has been built up for such a long time that even if we completely eliminated the agricultural and domestic runoff occurring the phosphorus levels in the lake would still be just as high as they are now.  This legacy is something that needs to be recognized and investigated more because it is also an issue in the lakes.   

This summer my goal was to take the first steps towards bringing technology into the solution.  I first studied the varying sediment composition of lake sediment in devices that use bacterial metabolism to produce an electric potential.  These devices are called microbial fuel cells or MFCs.  MFCs are interesting cells that can be used to better the water quality but also to create the electric potential.  In my research I only looked at the creation of the electric potential, but future studies using larger cells could be used to better water quality on a smaller scale.  

Giving Plants the Power: Phosphorus Dynamics Along Wild Rice Beds

Plants need phosphorus to grow. The Red Cedar Watershed has plenty of excess phosphorus in the summer months, which promotes the growth of the green layer of cyanobacteria that residents have learned to see and smell so well. Why not use this phosphorus to promote the growth of a different plant, one that adds cultural significance to the water, rather than to fuel the growth of a slimy, green layer? Wild rice, a native aquatic plant to Wisconsin, should be this plant. Wild rice would add value to the Red Cedar Watershed as a natural and ecological approach to phosphorus mitigation.

Wild rice has the potential to thrive and support native wildlife in the Red Cedar Watershed due to its historic presence. To better understand the dynamics of a wild rice ecosystem, my team and I went straight to the source. We found and surveyed five sites in the Red Cedar and surrounding watersheds that had healthy wild rice stands. These visits alone were enough to prove that wild rice can both grow and thrive in north-western Wisconsin, so why not throughout Red Cedar Watershed too? Before jumping right into planting and seeding of this plant, it is important to understand how wild rice growth affects phosphorus in the water and sediment.

To study how wild rice growth impacts phosphorus concentration and deposition along the bed, we took samples from the start to end of the wild rice bed. There was a noticeable difference in the sediment as we sampled throughout the zones just by the appearance of the muck as it oozed out of the corer. The sediment before the bed was barely penetrable sand while throughout the stand, the sediment was a black-brown, fibrous muck. There was an obvious difference in the sediment along the wild rice bed- a complex environment connected with wild rice that was waiting to be explored.

 To quantify the apparent differences in the sediment, my team and I took to the lab where we analyzed phosphorus concentrations and texture of the sediment from the samples. The phosphorus was measured as soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP), a form of phosphorus readily available to plants. There was an increase in SRP concentration in the downstream direction of the bed. Increasing SRP levels are likely related to high levels of nutrient sediment as well as decaying plant matter from previous years. In addition, the sediment with the highest sand content was found before the bed began and the sediment with the highest content of fine particles, like clay and silt, was found in the most upstream portion of the bed. This expected sedimentation from coarse to fine particles in the downstream direction is most likely caused a decrease in flow velocity due to the presence of wild rice. Since phosphorus is attached to particles floating in the water, sedimentation allows for the settling of phosphorus.

The increasing SRP levels in the sediment along the length of the wild rice bed and evidence of sedimentation provide initial data to phosphorus dynamics among the plant, water, and sediment. An increasing concentration of phosphorus in the sediment may be sourced from the water column. A decrease in phosphorus in the water column would lead to decreased phosphorus available for algae growth. To further understand the transport of SRP at the sediment-water interface, water measurements of SRP concentration along wild rice beds should be investigated. Data that revealed a decrease in SRP in the water column as the SRP in the sediment decreased would better support that wild rice removes phosphorus from the water column.

Wild rice nutrient uptake throughout the growing season is also important to understand because the plant takes up and released varying levels of phosphorus throughout the year to support growth.  For instance, wild rice holds the most nutrients in the sediment in mid-July to August so that the nutrients are ready to support the later stage of grain formation in late-August to September. Since the maximum nutrient uptake of wild rice occurs at the same time of algae blooms, wild rice may be an optimal plant for eutrophication mitigation. Further studies may measure SRP concentrations in the sediment throughout the year to understand phosphorus intake by the growing plant and phosphorus release by the decaying plant.

This study provides the initial evidence that wild rice affects phosphorus levels at the water-sediment interface and can be a part of the solution to decreasing algae blooms. Members of the community have asked me, “Why not just throw some scum suckers on the lake to clean up the mess?” While this machine and other forms of artificial technology may seem like the desired quick fix for algae blooms, they are by no means a long-term solution. Human activity and change to the landscape of Dunn County has led to the disruption of the lakes, but a natural process like plant growth can be used to balance the nutrients in the water bodies. It is time for us to rely on the restoration of wild rice, an ecosystem approach, to return the lakes their historic, clean state.

Policies for the People

On the surface, many issues that society faces seem like they may have a one and done solution. However, as we continue on the road of technological advancement, modern life becomes much more complex, and a solution is not always what it seems. Throughout the summer, I have had the opportunity to work alongside seven incredible women from many academic disciplines. All in an effort to find an interdisciplinary approach that will allow us to keep our fresh water bodies swimmable and fishable for the generations to come.

In Wisconsin, we have a long and proud tradition of “doing what needs to be done”, we also benefit from a midwestern sense of community and a fierce gratitude for the natural resources that provide our way of life. This attitude gives us a unique opportunity to combat problems and create policies together in the hopes for a more community-oriented solution. The Red Cedar Watershed, home to some of the most genuine and enthusiastic people I have ever encountered, has been fighting against nutrient pollution that creates algal blooms in our fresh water bodies for decades.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Are We Underestimating the Value of Our Green Lakes?

There are strong negative attitudes surrounding the lakes in the Red Cedar Basin. “The lakes are awful during hot days”, “It’s dangerous to touch the green water”, and the often mentioned “The algae smell is going to plague the entire town soon”. From gauging this public sentiment, one would expect the algal blooms to discourage people from spending time at the lakes. On the contrary, my research team noticed that many people still visit (especially Lake Chetek) for recreational activities even when the water was turning neon green in early July. Perplexed by this anomaly, we found ourselves asking: do people value lakes even when they have poor water quality and if so, by how much?

Friday, August 10, 2018

Finding Common Ground: Cultivating Farmer Communities in Pursuit of Conservation

Over the past two months, my research partner Tara and I have conducted 23 interviews with lakefront owners and farmers across the Red Cedar River watershed. All of these individuals graciously welcomed us into their home environments and willingly shared their experiences with two young women who “aren’t from here". Nine of these interviews were with a diverse range of farmers including conventional and organic dairies, agri-tourism farms, large scale-cash crop operations, small-scale vegetable farms, and alternative “niche-market” farms. My research focused primarily on farmer narratives and the ways in which cultivating a strong sense of community can lead to more effective and conscious conservation efforts. I began this research in an attempt to understand the commonalities between conventional and organic farmers in the region. From an outsider perspective, these two farming communities seem polar in their cultural beliefs and farming practices. After speaking with a diverse group of farmers, we found several common themes between the two main communities.

On the topic of conservation, although individuals had varying degrees in which they believed in and implemented conservation practices, all of the interviewees pursued some type of environmentally minded farming practice. Some of the conservation practices in common included cover crops, the implementation of waterways, no-till practices, the creation of pollinator habitat, rotational livestock grazing, continual soil health management, creating riparian buffer zones, land easements with the Department of Natural Resources or the Nature Conservancy, and the active management of forests and wildlife habitat.

When asked about their individual motivations to pursue conservation practices, many farmers expressed the challenge of straddling economic and environmental pressures and benefits when making decisions about conservation. One farmer concisely stated, “Everything I do is for a conservation reason, but everything I do has a dollar amount attached.” Many found that what was better for the environment and for the watershed, in the long run, helped to produce and better crop yield and increased the overall health of their landscape. Many, simply said that conservation is “what is right” and the feeling that they had to do things right: “I feel as all my neighbors do… We have a responsibility in that we control a significant amount of land, more so than the average citizen. Much more. So, we have an important responsibility in doing things right, because in a real true sense of a way, I don’t really own anything here.”

A fundamental care for place was the root of all of our conversations. Conventional farmers who had been farming the same land for generations expressed their deep connection to the landscape: “My entire history is pretty much right here.”, “We’re very attached to the river. That is out pride.” All farmers expressed some sort of connection to the watershed, but interestingly, the majority of farmers interviewed did not use the lakes, rivers or streams in the area for recreation, citing either no desire, limited free time, or the poor water quality.  

On a community level, what is at the heart of this issue is the fundamental importance of being heard. In a constantly changing economy, farmers continually expressed their fears of losing their land and the pressures they felt to expand and to become more efficient to compete in the regional, national and global marketplace. All farmers expressed financial stress and concern about the market-- either the lowering prices of soy and corn, or the challenge to find a niche market and customer base to sustain their livelihood. These economic pressures are what drive many farmers to use technologies and fertilizing techniques that are notoriously known to increase the phosphorus application in soils. Several farmers posed the question, asking “What will farming look like in twenty years?” Their ideas usually included mass consolidation and the loss of the family farm.

Ultimately, from a summer of research and listening to diverse range of community members and stakeholders, I believe that cultivating farming communities should be prioritized and should be used as a tool for conservation. To build a strong community, we must first recognize and credit farmers. By crediting both conventional and organic farmers for the conservation practices that they have independently pursued, farmers are more likely to feel encouraged and engaged with the issue, rather than feeling blamed or isolated. As one farmer stated, “We forgot that we have done a lot already and that people really do care. I would just like to see us, for people who are doing a good job, reward that somehow. At least recognize it… I don’t believe that it is always recognized.”

Secondly, we must prioritize farmer-led conservation. There are several examples of this across the watershed, ranging from small-scale farmer-led conservation efforts to meetings within smaller watersheds. By prioritizing farmer leadership, individual farmers can consult with one another and feel a responsibility for their community and landscape. One interviewee expressed the his perspective as a farmer, “Farmers are kind of a goofy animal… They’re not followers. They are their own innovators. They kind of have to get it straight in their own mind that it works, so that’s why I say that we’re all a crazy critter. Cause we just don’t change that easy.” This quote emphasizes the importance of patience and respect that must be present to have constructive and thoughtful change.

Finally, to address these issues and to build stronger farming communities, the regional community should prioritize creating a physical space for farmer leadership and conversation. Several farmers expressed varying aspects of individual isolation within the landscape. One farmer mentioned that he interacted with his neighbors and community members “either on the road or at church”. By building a physical space where all farmers can interact and engage in open dialog to share their experiences and advice, a sense of community and ownership can be established. One farmer expressed this idea concisely, speaking of his relationship to his neighbor: “[My neighbor and I], although we have very little in common, like very little, we have been able to find common ground, literally, just by talking about vegetables. I think that is really interesting and allows for the spirit of cooperation.”

Perhaps most important in my summer research was my realization of the importance of being heard and value of listening to others. I quickly found that the extreme differences we see in the rural and urban divide are only intensified by the unwillingness to have honest and open conversations with people who are not like us. This summer, I was welcomed by many individuals that I would likely have never had the opportunity to have an open conversation with about their experiences, the issues they face and how they fit into the movement towards conservation without their trust and the LAKES program. I want to express my most sincere gratitude to all of the farmers, lakefront residents and community members who took the time to welcome us into their home environments to share their experiences with us. We could not have done this work without this community’s willingness and generosity.