There are a lot of things I am learning about this summer, but all of them come down to one pesky, little letter. P. It is the symbol for the element phosphorous. Phosphorous is usually a good thing. It is used to make ATP, which powers cells, and it is used to make DNA, which powers life. However, the phosphorous in the Red Cedar Watershed is a perfect illustration of the phrase “too much of a good thing.” The huge amount of phosphorous in the lake is what leads to the toxic blooms of cyanobacteria every summer. This phosphorous gets into the lake because of people.
Saturday, June 24, 2017
This past week has been quite the fruitful continuation of an introduction to the world of academic research. After a week of gathering sources and reading through a plethora of literature regarding water quality policies, I got my hands dirty and worked with real data for the first time in my academic career (unless you count FRED data downloads for problem sets...). This week's appetizer came in the form of water quality data from the National Water Quality Monitoring Council, which proved to a delectable selection of information that will serve as the backbone for the remaining components of this project's particular approach. Once that data had been spruced up and made into workable sets, the entree awaited: data from the 2002-2012 USDA Agricultural Census, specifically farm counts and total acreage. And why stop at one dish? Throughout the week I was also making steady progress on a second plate of brain food: a literature review encompassing last week's readings, and representing a key component of this summer's research.
Lesson #2: Never Trust a Cabbage
Team Biology has wasted no time in beginning an experiment to biogeochemically remediate lake Menomin. Toxic conditions at this lake have been accredited to Microcystis aeruginosa, a freshwater cyanobacteria, who fully takes advantage of the overabundance of phosphorus in the lake. Our plan is to introduce a plant species who will uptake the phosphorus before the Microcystis can. Preparation for this experiment has been long and labor intensive as our team has worked tirelessly shedding blood*, sweat, and tears in the name of science. The plants will sit atop rafts constructed from 2X4s, chicken wire, and pool noodles. We will be using collard greens in this experiment considering they are known to uptake a considerable amount of nutrients and are fairly hardy plants.
This summer I’ll be looking at the effects of manure use on water pollution. Manure is often used as a substitute for commercial fertilizer, but its impact on water phosphorus levels is somewhat unclear. In the literature on the subject thus far, manure use and relevant regulations have been shown both to increase and decrease pollution (depending on the assumptions and conditions of the study). Many are case-studies, meaning the results of which are of limited generalizability. To my knowledge, the project I’m undertaking will be the first empirical analysis of manure use’s relationship to water phosphorus levels using data from the U.S. Midwest.
After looking at these effects, I will run some policy simulations to try to determine the optimal regulations for manure use in the area. The hope is for this paper to be published and noticed by policymakers who will use these results to make an informed decision on how to improve the quality of our water.
How do you transform a problem into solutions? This is what I want to know. But if a straightforward answer existed I feel like more of us would be screaming it from the rooftops and making spending every living moment doing it and the world would be a happier, cleaner, safer place. But that doesn’t exist. The answer is elusive, complex and specific for different issues. So where does one even begin?
After a week of learning everything ranging from how to analyze data using statistical software to how to conduct interviews with farmers to get the most authentic responses, it seems as if my head is practically bursting with unexpected knowledge of all sorts. That being said, the most startling of all these developing new insights seems to be concentrated in the form of maps. By “maps”, not only do I mean as in physical roadmaps of land (as there has been plenty of that in the past few days with Sadie partnering with me to navigate through multiple Wisconsin counties in order to survey farmers), but also “maps” of all the interconnected pieces that are building my own growing knowledge about farmers’ livelihoods and the daily realities they face.
Creating our own aerial photography is one of the things I am learning this summer. This consists of flying a kite and attaching a camera to it, via a rig, setting it to automatically take continuous images. This meant testing out our 7 foot and 9 foot kites this week! Getting the kite to take off was quite the challenge at first but, thanks to consistent wind this week, I’ve gotten the hang of it, plus its really fun! We made a rig out of a water jug, pool noodles, and rubber bands. There were high hopes that the kite would be able to carry the rig with a digital camera to it but quickly learned it wouldn’t when we were testing it out at 11 PM one night. We did, however, attach an iPhone to it (with no protection whatsoever which was super scary and we were nervous it was going to fly off and crack), and successfully the kite took it away with no problem. Here, we learned that we needed to get a lighter camera, that will hopefully get here next week so we can finally start taking pictures. By the end of these couple of days experimenting with the kite, I can say that I’m pretty darn good with a kite. I need to put these skills to display and join some sort of kite club! If that's even a real thing.
Two weeks in and I am feeling oh so good! It has been amazing to switch up the regular learning routine of daily classes and instead delve into the life of a researcher. I have already learned so much and become so close with my peers, it is difficult to quantify what these two weeks have meant to me. Even on the tough and long days, I am so grateful to be here! Back home in Massachusetts I attend Hampshire College and study sustainable agriculture. At Hampshire, students develop their own study of interest (rather than choosing from a list of majors) so I have also been able to foster my interest in studying community. My partner Elise and I are working with our mentor Nels Paulson (#TeamNels) on the sociology piece of this LAKES project to create social networks and examine how these social networks affect the adoption of best management practices (BMPs). Since my background is not directly in sociology, I was a little intimidated by the amount of math involved in social analysis and modeling, but after a few long days of learning statistics, the fun has begun!
Friday, June 23, 2017
During the course of week, I’ve had the pleasure of attending various meetings pertaining to the policies in the county of Dunn as well as talking to the people who are affected by them. This also includes learning about how the county and community currently work towards land and water conservation, who gets a say when constructing certain policies, and how different boards will communicate to the public about these issues. Overall it’s quite interesting seeing how policies are perceived through the eyes of different individuals and their takes on what is actually important. Along with my group members Amber and Kayleigh we got to see a bit into the history of water use in Lake Menomin thanks to the Dunn County Historical Society. In order to improve the water quality here in Menomonie in addition to other areas I think it’s important to identify the social infrastructure as well as the community capacity that will help attain more measurable and sustainable results.
Two weeks have flown by and I can tell my brain is already getting bigger! Well, maybe it hasn't actually physically grown in size, but I sure am learning a lot from this experience. From my past three years of studying economics, I certainly understood that communities are complex - but real-life research gives you an entirely new perspective on the word "complex." While exploring IMPLAN (an input-output software that allows you to analyze the effects of a given shock on an economy), my team and I discovered just how many inputs go in to the development of a community project (hint: it's too many to count). For instance, we're interested in learning more about how the TMDL will affect the local economy. TMDL stands for Total Maximum Daily Load, and the Red Cedar River Water Quality Partnership created a plan for the town of Menomonie to reduce phosphorus loads that are heavily polluting the Red Cedar watershed. While this plan is good for the environment, we want to know if it's economically feasible for the community.
Since I am passionate about our environment and know that the Menomonie economy has a strong agricultural sector, I would like to learn more about how conservation practices in agriculture can improve water quality, which can improve tourism, which can improve the local economy. If I find that practicing conservative agricultural practices would actually hurt the Menomonie economy, I would like to learn about possible solutions that could counteract that negativity. The community here is full of generational farmers, so I'm sure it will be hard to convince them to change their traditional ways of farming, but I'm hoping with the research my team is doing this summer, we will have enough evidence to show that practicing agricultural methods that improve water quality for our community can at least benefit the well-being of the locals.
Monday, June 19, 2017
My name is Ryleigh Prochnow and I was born and raised in the Menomonie/Colfax area, but I study economics at UW La Crosse. Because I am a local, I honestly didn’t have much for expectations since I already know the area, or so I thought. Growing up in this small, rural area in the middle of nowhere, I always idolized the bigger and exciting cities. However, now that I have gotten more involved in the nature and history of the area, I have realized how unique and beautiful Menomonie and the surrounding area really is. By seeing the reactions to the town and nature from the other students, I have grown a new appreciation for this environment. The thick, beautiful grasses and flowers from abundant rainfall, the plentiful creatures like deer and squirrels on campus (we saw a deer right across our dorm), and the beautiful people have reached a new light in my life, and I could not be more thankful to have this new perspective. I have learned that life's most beautiful gifts can be right in front of you, you just have to look carefully.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
A campus ordinarily teeming with people is quiet. Streets I have passed hundreds of times hold new interests and experiences. People all around me are full of questions I can’t give satisfactory answers to. Menomonie I thought I knew you. I grew up next to you. I visit you all semester long when I go to classes, when I stop by to see family, when I just need to pick up a few groceries. Yet I don’t think I ever gave much thought to what you are or what you had to offer.