Friday, August 12, 2016

The Logic of the Lakes: Economic Research on Preferences and Perceptions

When I began my research with the economics team, I assumed that we would find answers that fit neatly into the box of questions that I had formulated. I expected to find particular trends and significant factors, and in the back of my mind this project was a way to prove my preconceived notions true. Eight weeks later, and I have more questions than answers. But, as they say, the best research often ends this way.

Personally, I was drawn to the willingness to pay questions we designed on our survey. People's perceptions and behavior fascinate me because often times they are not as rational as assumed. There is always a story behind the decisions people make, especially when it comes to environmental goods, as there is no explicit price to monitor and construct the story for us. So we need dig deeper to fill in the gaps ourselves.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Oral History of Lakes Menomin and Tainter

This summer, I focused on oral history of the Red Cedar Watershed, and more specifically, Lakes Menomin and Tainter. But what is oral history, you ask? Oral history is much like written history; it has its own slants and perspectives depending on the source. Unlike written history (you might have guessed), it is spoken. In this way, one can gather an understanding of the past as well as the significance that people place on certain events depending on how much or little they talk about them. I used this concept - the way people talk about the past affects their actions in the present - to understand how people perceive the lakes and how they have changed.

A postcard from the mid 1900s featuring "the old swimming hole" at Wakanda Park.
That means that over a couple of months, I interviewed more than 10 people in the Red Cedar Watershed, read interview transcripts conducted by previous REU students, attended various public meetings relating to the lakes, did archival research, and took a lot of field notes. As I and my research partner, Madison, started wrapping up data collection, we also started analyzing the data we gathered. The data filled various roles in my research. I analyzed the interviews to get an idea of how people talk about the lake health as they’ve known it. I used the information I found in the archives to fill in the spaces of what people didn’t say in interviews. That is, people tell things as they know it. The archives proved to be a useful resource that allowed me to gather a fuller representation of the lakes’ history. By participating in public meetings, I experienced what sort of things are being done in the present to address lake health.

After all of that - data gathering, coding, and analyzing - I drew a few conclusions.
  1. Personal experience, strength of memories, and sense of place influence how they perceive current lake health, what they think should or can be done about declining lake health, and how they are involved in lake clean up efforts.
  2. Based on the interviews conducted, the dominant theme is that the lake has gotten worse. Most people expressed that they were unsure of how to move forward in addressing declining lake health, even if they are involved in a lake protection organization.
  3. Even though uncertainty exists for a variety of stakeholders, steps are being taken to slow the declining lake health.

So, people that have lived in the area certainly had stories to share, but what comes with that is a sense that the lakes have gotten worse, and there’s too much to do in order to reverse that decline, and that it’s an insurmountable problem. Result: little movement forward.
There was also a sense that the lake has always been green, and we don’t know how to begin to address that, and that it’s an insurmountable problem. Result: also little movement forward.
There was even a small sense for some that the lakes have improved, and there isn't anything to be done. Result: you already know - little movement forward.

Why does this matter? So what - some community members feel frustrated about lake health and don't know how to proceed. Can't we move ahead anyway? Well, yes, you can try to do that. But a very important part of this is that the lakes are a part of the community, and it's unlikely that people in the community will choose to be involved with something that feels like an uphill battle. This presents a disadvantage to all parties. Instead, make it easy for the community to understand what is going on. Work to build a consistent community understanding about the lakes' present health. Host educational events about the history of the lakes in order to establish a consistent, unified narrative in the community about the lakes' history as a community center and a clear vision for the future. In this way, people can better comprehend the situation, and are more likely to come together for such a worthy cause.

Socializing for a Cleaner Watershed: Social Connectivity and BMP Lease Agreements

It’s been said that we are the product of the five people with whom we spend the most time.  In my case, I am (very luckily!) the composite of my kind and talented research partner, Clare Salerno, and my brilliant and enthusiastic research mentor, Dr. Nels Paulson, as well as my two charming roommates and, of course, the houseplant that sat atop my desk as I researched Non-Operating Landowners and BMP Lease Agreements in Dunn and Baron County, WI at the University of Wisconsin-Stout this summer.

While the idea of reflecting the values and characteristics of the people we hang around with most seems obvious, it has powerful implications in every scenario to which it is applied—be it the workplace, personal relationships, or otherwise.  In the case of our research, we found that Non-Operating Landowners who have close relationships with their tenants and are connected to other Non-Operating Landowners through groups and organizations (such as Farmer’s Unions, sportsman’s clubs, and church groups) place a higher value on the preservation of their farmland and are more likely to include Best Management Practices in their lease agreements with the farmers who rent out and farm their land.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Identifying Changes in Land Use and Highly Erodible Soil

As part of the geography team, my task was to map highly erodible soils, and to get an estimate of how much phosphorus went into the waterways due to land use change from 2011 to 2015. This was done using a Geographic Information System (ArcGIS), which is computer software used to map and analyze spatial data. GIS data comes in the form of layers, which contain an attribute table describing the features of the data.

To map highly erodible soils, I first had to download the soils data layer for the state of Wisconsin. This layer uses polygons to visualize the shape and area of the different types of soils. It contained a field in its attribute table with a code for its soil type. These codes vary by county, so in order to find out which ones were highly erodible, I contacted NRCS district conservationists for counties within the Red Cedar watershed and asked them for their list of codes for highly erodible soils. I then selected the different codes from the table using a tool called Select by Attribute, and exported that data into a new layer containing only highly erodible soils. I found there were about 418,000 acres of highly erodible soils in the Red Cedar watershed.

To estimate how much phosphorus was going into the waterways due to changes in land use, I had to find out how much land changed from grassland to cropland. The reason behind this was that no topsoil is lost when there is grass or pasture, but when the land gets farmed and plowed, there is significant loss of topsoil. Plowing leaves the soil exposed to the elements and when it rains, this soil erodes and washed out into the waterways. This soil contains phosphorus, which is what causes the algal blooms. To calculate the change between these two types of land cover, I downloaded satellite imagery from 2011 and 2015 from the USDA. This imagery was classified according to the type of land cover and the different types of crops. I reclassified the two images into two classes, grassland and cropland. I then input these two images in Image Analysis and used the Difference tool, which resulted in a map with three classes, change from grassland to cropland, change from cropland to grassland, and no change. I then calculated the area and found that 8,738 acres changed from cropland to grassland, and 82,047 acres changed from grassland to cropland. Assuming farming at state standards, this means 1,312,752 tons of topsoil were lost from 2011 to 2015. Taking the average soil P test for Dunn and Barron counties of 52ppm, we get 75.25 tons of added phosphorus to waterways. Finally, I reclassified one more time to get only cropland, and overlayed this layer with the highly erodible soils layer and calculated the area. I found that about 85,000 acres, (20%) of highly erodible land are being farmed on.

The maps I produced can help illustrate what happens when there is a big increase in farming. This increase can potentially be explained by rising corn prices. My research found that enrollment in conservation programs such as CREP decreased as prices in corn increased. My map of farmland on highly erodible soil can also help in identifying which areas to target for a bigger push in conservation agriculture.


Mathematical Modeling to Forecast Chlorophyll Levels and Algae Blooms

I worked on mathematical models for forecasting chlorophyll concentration and finding a condition for blooming. Mathematical models help with understanding important processes that govern chlorophyll concentration.  These models are analyzed by considering all relevant variables on the same time and length scale to determine the relative impact of each physical process. This normalization yields non-dimensional parameters that assist in the interpretation of analytic and computational results. We analyzed data from past REU students and the DNR to use in our models.We modeled chlorophyll growth because there is a direct relationship between chlorophyll and algae counts because algae produces chlorophyll as a by-product of photosynthesis and chlorophyll is more easily measured.
The forecasting model predicts how long after a large flushing event it takes for the lake to turn green and smelly if there’s no rain. We used a logistic growth model to capture longer term algae growth and a carrying capacity was estimated by looking at how much the algae can grow if there’s no nutrients for them to consume. We ran 100 simulations varying the carrying capacity and then the growth rate. We found the most variation when the carrying capacity was varied but in all simulations we found that it takes about 3 weeks to hit the carrying capacity level, which corresponds well with data collected from past REUs and the DNR.
The bloom condition was found by solving an equation that describes chlorophyll growth over time based on its growth and movement. The bloom condition was found by solving the equation analytically and was found to rely on Secchi depth and the ratio between growth rate and turbulence. The equation was also solved numerically using computer programming and found very similar results to the analytic solution.  

 Both of these models can take proposed solutions to the algae problem and test how effective they would be at preventing blooms. Both models advocate the solution of increasing turbulence and flow in the lake and the bloom condition models also suggests lowering the algae growth by limiting phosphorus and nitrogen to help solve this problem. 


Intersecting Identities and Land Meanings
BMP Use Among Non-Operating Landowners

Forty percent of farmland in the United States is rented out, mostly from Non-Operating Landowners (NOLs), or people that own land but do not themselves farm it. Nearly ⅔ of these NOLs are over the age of 65.  NOLs represent a sizeable, but vastly understudied, portion of landowners in the United States, and my research as part of the Sociology team this summer focused on use of conservation agriculture Best Management Practices (BMPs), such as conservation tillage or buffer strips, on farmland owned by NOLs.  
Our initial research questions sought to discern how factors like age, gender, conservation values, and relationship with one’s tenant affect BMP use and BMP lease agreements.  These questions guided our decision to talk to widowed women NOLs as well as framed the questions we asked NOLs in our survey.  Ultimately, my project aimed to discern how the intersecting identities and meanings NOLs associated with their land, as collected through survey and interview data, predict the levels of BMP use on their land.

Water Quality Policy Implications and Funding Opportunities

I spent this summer with two other economics REU students looking at how water quality would affect the economy in a number of ways. I focused on funding opportunities for water quality improvement and the impact that water quality has on Chetek businesses.

We sent surveys to Menomonie and Chetek residents in order to determine whether they would be willing to pass a .1% tax increase that would go towards water quality improvement. From their responses, we found that residents were supportive of local and county sales tax increases. If a sales tax increase of .1% were to pass, Dunn County and Barron County would receive an additional $440,636 and $713,305 respectively in annual sales tax revenue. Similarly, if a county property tax increase of .1% were to pass, Dunn County and Barron County would receive an additional $935,045 and $1,025,568 respectively in annual property tax revenue. While these numbers may seem dauntingly large at first glance, the average resident in Dunn County would only have to pay an additional $10 annually for the sales tax increase and $155 annually for the property tax increase. In Barron County, the average resident would pay an additional $15.60 annually in sales tax and $135.60 annually in property tax. These numbers show that while the cost to the individual would be relatively low, the county would be able to generate a large amount of revenue that could be spent on water quality improvement efforts.

The TMDL plan established by the Red Cedar River Water Quality Partnership outlines various Best Management practices along with their cost and amount of phosphorus they would reduce. Money earned from additional tax revenue could go towards funding some of these practices. Conservation tillage, for example, would reduce phosphorus by 63,000 pounds a year and much of the cost would be able to be covered by these small tax increases. More than anything, this research helped show that local residents are willing to help fund initiatives to improve regional water quality.

Our research of Chetek businesses showed that water quality in the area greatly affects local businesses. If the water quality were to improve, the amount of sales revenue and employment during peak summer months would grow in most industries. In fact, sales revenue for retail stores was projected to increase by 185% by the local business owners. On the other hand, a decrease in water quality – marked by an increase in algae blooms – would have a strong negative impact on local businesses. Retail business owners projected that a decrease in water quality would decrease sales revenue by 168%. These numbers show that improved water quality wouldn’t just increase recreational enjoyment, but it would also create growth in the local economy.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Analyzing Tainter Lake

Analyzing Tainter Lake
How previous data informs mathematical models
The goal of the mathematics team was to create a mathematical model (a method where math is used to simulate real-world situations) that can be used to determine the amount of blue-green algae in the lake. In order to do so, we had to use data gathered by last year's REU and the DNR to determine the realistic conditions of Tainter Lake; these conditions were then applied to the model we developed based on previous studies conducted on bloom-plagued waters.

The most significant difference between Tainter Lake and previously studied lakes is the lack of temperature stratification. Those lakes generally have a thermocline- a layer in which the temperature changes rapidly and is sandwiched by a warmer layer on top and a colder layer on the bottom. Tainter Lake is effectively the same temperature throughout, as it is much shallower than the studied lakes, so we had to account for this in our model.

We chose to model the blue-green algae population via the chlorophyll concentration of the lake. We were able to do this because there is a positive linear relationship between the population and the concentration- as one increases, so does the other. We decided to model chlorophyll because it is both easier to measure and visualize.

I found that as flow increases, chlorophyll decreases. Greater flow both flushes out the algae and makes it harder for them to grow as they are displaced by turbulence. The particular species of blue-green algae found in Tainter Lake, Microcystis aeruginosa, has the ability to float or sink to an optimal depth by inflating or deflating its gas vacuoles. It can float to the top to receive more sunlight or sink to the bottom to take in nutrients. If the water is more turbulent, it is more difficult to maintain its optimal depth, which slows its growth.

The neatest thing I found was a delay in bloom after a flushing event. Our model estimated that it would take about three weeks after a flushing event to reach the chlorophyll saturation level. In early July of 2015, a significant flushing event occurred. Sure enough, three weeks later the chlorophyll had reached saturation level- the highest reading of the summer! While the rain flushed out the algae, it also would have brought in massive amounts of phosphorous via runoff, which served as a replenished food source for the later bloom.

By using data specific to Tainter Lake to inform our model, the model can more accurately reflect the conditions of the lake and account for any differences that established models may otherwise miss. This makes the model a more valuable tool in assessing the extent of the effectiveness of a proposed solution.

Final Research Thoughts

Lake Quality and the Housing Market
How much an algae free lake is worth from a different perspective

This year the economics research group of the LAKES REU in part looked at how the housing market is affected by the algae problem in Lake Menomin and Tainter and the results were clear. The housing prices in Menomonie are much lower than they would be because of the presence of the algae blooms, especially the lakefront homes.

We used a technique called hedonic estimation in order to isolate the effect of the lake on housing prices. Essentially it works by pulling out everything that affects the cost of a house; number of bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage, region, lot size, garage size, etc., and use a regression to see how each attribute affects the price of a house.

The median non-lakefront house in Menomonie is actually more expensive, around $133,055 versus $121,869 in the Chetek area and $107,100 around Cumberland. This is capturing the differences in desirability of the area, local labor market effects, and other area-wide idiosyncrasies. However the story changes when lakefront houses are considered instead. The typical lakefront house in Menomonie is worth $169,078, while in Chetek is worth $170,927, and is worth $175,215 in Cumberland.

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.