Sunday, August 7, 2016

Community Perceptions on Lake Health in Chetek, WI

Over these past 8 weeks, I have learned many things from this community and the mentors in our REU program. While I had a pretty good sense of what research I would be doing, they guided me and my fellow REU students into thinking critically about the research we were to be doing. With my project specifically, I was to gain insight into the community of Chetek, WI in order to understand their perceptions they had of the lake health, as well as what the significance the lake had on the community itself. 

To do this, I interviewed prominent stakeholders in the community such as business owners, Chetek Lake Protection Association members, Chetek Chamber of Commerce members, and lifelong residents of Chetek. In these interviews I asked a series of questions that would allow me to understand how they viewed the lake as a resource to the community, and personally as well. In a majority of the interviews when I asked about their thoughts on the lakes health, the respondents told me that that "the lake changes from year to year" or "the health really depends on the amount of rain we have". This was significant in the process of figuring out the community's perceptions of the lake in the area because their perceptions were defined by the physical appearance of the lake. In short, whenever they saw green on the water, or when they noticed the lake giving off a particular smell, they believed that the lake was then unhealthy, and when it rained, it would wash away the green and the smell, causing them to view the lake as healthier than when there was green on the water. 

The issue with this, is that while the lake does appear to look better when then it rains or is a wetter summer, that doesn't necessarily mean it is any healthier. With the phosphorus pollution that is the root cause of the problem in the lake's overall health, it doesn't go away depending on the weather- it is always there even when it doesn't appear to be. Because of this, the community views the problem as variable, which leads to a lack of commitment and effort in cleaning up the lake- there becomes a "it isn't bad all the time, so why should we put a lot of money and time into cleaning it up" mentality in the area. This lack of commitment creates a hole in Chetek's community capacity, which is just a community's capability of addressing and solving problems. I found that in my research, if Chetek wants to be able to find a way to aid the lakes health, and be proactive in making it worse, it needs to have commitment within the community. This means that there needs to be a common understanding of what is wrong with the lake, rather than a grouping of different misconceptions among the members of the community. This can be achieved through more communication among the organizations in the area, as well as an understanding that the lake is polluted, and that the green on the lake can happen at any time, it just hasn't yet. 

From gathering these conclusions, I gained a better sense of what it means to be a cultural anthropologist performing field work, and because of this research, I was able to learn about and appreciate this unique community. This REU is an experience I will never forget, and I know participating in this has made me a more skillful researcher, on top of allowing me to have so many more new people in my life that I can now call my close friends. 

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