2018 LAKES REU Student Researchers

Meet the 2018 LAKES REU team and view their research projects.
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Naomi Albert - 2018 LAKES REU student

Naomi Albert

Natural Resource Planning major at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

Faculty Mentor: Arthur Kneeland

Research Poster: Wild Rice Landscape Ecology: Restoration Implications

Naomi is a native Wisconsinite, and senior at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.  She is studying Natural Resource Planning and Spanish.  She hopes to combine her passion for nature with her interest in people and cultures as a sustainably oriented urban planner and policy advocate.  After earning her bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2019, she plans on gaining work experience before starting graduate school.  In the future, she hopes to do research on integrating sustainable agricultural systems into cities.  When she is not dreaming of sustainable cities you can find Naomi exploring the outdoors, biking, running or skiing

Read Naomi Albert's Research Summary

Wild Rice Landscape Ecology: Restoration Implications

View Research Project Here

This summer my research team and I explored the possibility of restoring wild rice in the Red Cedar watershed.  We dove into this topic because aquatic vegetation has the potential to change phosphorus dynamics in the water, possibly locking up some of the excess nutrients—those same nutrients that cause the toxic cyanobacteria blooms each summer.

Aquatic plants have a complex relationship with phosphorus.  They take phosphorus up during the summer months when cyanobacteria blooms are most problematic: slow water velocity and higher temperatures allow for nutrients to settle into the sediment to hold that sediment, along with the nutrients in it, in place with their roots.  Essentially, plants shape their environment and have the potential to help regulate nutrient levels in the water column.

We choose to focus on wild rice because it is a native plant which is historically significant to the area.  According to literature from the beginning of the 20th century, wild rice once flourished in the Red Cedar Watershed.  During that time, the plant was an important food source for Native Americans.  Today, wild rice is still harvested each fall in Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin.  In an age where people are becoming more mindful of local food, having a native grain as part of the ecosystem is an exciting prospect.  Beyond human use, wild rice is also important for the ecosystem since it offers a food source for wildlife.

Today, wild rice is no longer common in the area, so our research focused on assessing the barriers and possibilities of restoration in the Red Cedar Watershed.  We hoped to identify factors which would be useful for successful re-seeding efforts.  To do this, we studied five wild rice sites in the surrounding counties.  One site was in the Red Cedar Watershed, while the others were in adjacent watersheds.  We investigated some of the environmental conditions in the rice beds, in addition to the adjacent land use.  Our aim was to decipher why wild rice grows there and not elsewhere.

Although our study, and the academic literature on wild rice, did not definitively identify why wild rice is no longer present in the watershed, we have some clues.  The plant’s decline likely results from a myriad of interrelated factors.  It boils down to human impacts on the landscape.  Damming of the rivers, wave disturbance from boats, invasive species, and shoreline degradation are key suspects.  In addition, climate change will likely have a devastating effect on the species; with increased frequency and severity of storms, we can expect more wild rice to be uprooted from wind and flooding.

Despite these concerns, I am still optimistic about restoration efforts in the Red Cedar Watershed.  Two of the sites we assessed were attached to nutrient rich eutrophic lakes.  We also found highest density of wild rice in organic rich river muck.  This suggests that wild rice can tolerate high levels of nutrients, like what we see in the Red Cedar Watershed.

Nevertheless, there are still limitations with reestablishment here.  The dams which create Lakes Tainter and Menomin hold water levels at an artificially constant level.  Wild rice may do better with a slight seasonal draw down during the winter months, this would provide the plant a competitive advantage over native perennials like cattails which need year-round saturation.  However, more research would have to be done to understand how to best manage dams for the entire aquatic ecosystem.  It would be foolish to draw down dams and kill off aquatic perennials before we have a reseeded wild rice bed to take the perennials’ place.  Previous researchers have also found that wild rice is sensitive to waves.  Waves from motor boats could potentially uproot stalks during their summer growth.  This issue could be resolved with no-wake zones to protect shoreline vegetation.  Researchers have also shown that wild rice is sensitive to land use and does not do well in areas of higher urban development.  Although the Red Cedar Watershed does not have a large proportion of urban areas, precautions can still be taken to ensure that development is as low impact as possible.  Good shoreline zoning and development regulations are tools which could be used to protect sensitive aquatic plants like wild rice.

Ultimately, we have scratched the surface on the dynamics at play in a wild rice ecosystem.  Further research is needed to truly understand what restoring wild rice in the Red Cedar Watershed might look like.  If I have learned one thing this summer, it is that natural ecosystems are incredibly complex.  Relationships are not linear, but instead interwoven and compounding.  It is this inter-relatedness that makes losing one species on the landscape so damaging; it is truly a loss to the entire ecosystem, upsetting the natural balance.

Therefore, I believe that restoring native ecosystems has great potential in mitigating the phosphorus problem; an ecosystem in balance has greater resilience and is better able to adapt to exterior changes such as excess phosphorus loading.  Wild rice is by no means the sole answer to the problem, and more research needs to be done on the nutrient cycling of the plant; however, I think that ecosystem restoration is one of a suite of solutions which together can make the watershed more beautiful and vibrant.  

We need to take a holistic, long term approach to this problem.  This means both reducing the phosphorus inputs from runoff and erosion and dealing with the legacy phosphorus that has accumulated from years of inputs.  One of the most difficult components of this problem is that it is not a quick fix, we cannot simply “solve” it and move on.  Instead we have to adapt our mindset about the lakes- cyanobacteria is not a problem we have to fix; rather the lakes are a resource we should protect and take care of.

Elle Alvarez-Casas - 2018 LAKES REU student

Elle Alvarez-Casas

Applied Social Science at University of Wisconsin-Stout

Faculty Mentor: Zach Raff

Research Poster: Effects of Administrative Code NR151 on Phosphorus Levels in Wisconsin Water Bodies

Read Elle Alvarez-Casas' Research Summary

Policies for the People

View Research Project Here

On the surface, many issues that society faces seem to have simple solutions. However, as we continue down the road of technological advancement, modern life becomes more complex and solutions may not be what they seem. Throughout the summer, I have had the opportunity to work alongside seven incredible women from many academic disciplines to find an interdisciplinary approach that will allow us to keep our fresh water bodies swimmable and fishable for 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 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.

Water pollution touches us all, so it is something that will take all of us to make a change. Through local lake associations and other groups, we have a lot of dedicated individuals that are willing to be part of the solution. Creating policy and informing the community from the ground up and with everyone in mind is something that could go a long way in the fight for our water resources.

This summer, I was fortunate to get a closer view of the policies that help to reduce runoff and water pollution in our state. Specifically, I looked at the NR151, a policy which is not known to all, but is a keystone in the fight against water pollution in Wisconsin. The NR151 was created to regulate nonpoint urban and agricultural runoff in Wisconsin. In 2010, this policy was updated to go beyond the federal Clean Water Act to create one of the strictest approaches to water quality management in the nation. Since the NR151 is not specific to one industry, it is important that we view this issue with an “all hands-on-deck” mentality. Farmers, elected officials, and urbanites alike have the power to come together to reduce the input of nutrients into our water bodies.

With the help and dedication of my mentor Dr. Zach Raff and my enthusiastic research partner and new-found friend, Monica, I was able to apply the skills I have learned in the classroom to tackling an important policy question. We wanted to examine the NR151 policy and see if these strict approaches were having their intended benefit of reduced nutrient levels in surface water bodies. Throughout the summer, I used econometric techniques to analyze the NR151 policy. We found a causal relationship between the NR151 regulations and a reduction in phosphorus levels in Wisconsin surface water bodies, meaning that the policy is working how it was envisioned. However, the phosphorus decreases have been modest, so more work is needed before labeling NR151 a “success”.

As a UW-Stout student, I have had exposure to the problems of Lake Menomin since I started school here in 2014. However, before I entered the LAKES program, I had limited information on what exactly the problem was, and how we should go about finding a solution. Through my time with the program, I have learned many things about the science behind water pollution in our state that I never would have been able to identify on my own. I have also learned that behind all the scientific definitions and complexities, there is a need for a dedicated community to come together and create a sustained system for ecosystem conservation. Although policy is not the only approach that can be taken, and we still have a long way to go if we are to successfully clean up our water bodies, policy-driven approaches are incredibly valuable to the community because they are something that can work in tandem with other, more technologically advanced approaches that may come.

Monica Kim - 2018 LAKES REU student

Monica Kim

Economics & Mathematics at Occidental College - Los Angeles, CA 

Faculty Mentor: Zach Raff

Research Poster: How Valuable are Lakes in the Red Cedar Basin? Modeling Recreational Demand Using Travel Cost Method

Monica is currently a junior studying Economics and Mathematics at Occidental College in LA. She decided to major in economics because she realized economic arguments are powerful tools that can bring people across the political spectrum all together on the same page, especially on environmental issues. After graduation, she hopes to find a job that involves sustainability, data analysis, and programming before applying to master’s or PhD in Economics. When not occupied with work and classes, you will probably find her catching up on episodes of The Good Place (created by the brilliant Michael Schur), playing around with her Canon 70D camera, or enjoying boba milk tea.  

Read Monica Kim's Research Summary

Are We Underestimating the Value of Our Lakes?

View Research Project Here

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 the lakes for recreational activities even when the water turns 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?

Our project relied on the travel cost method to quantify the recreational value of lakes in the Red Cedar Basin. For most goods like a loaf of bread, you go to the store and pay a certain dollar amount for it; that amount reflects how much you value that loaf of bread. However, lakes are not items like bread that are bought and sold in markets, so there is no price which can tell us how much they are worth. This is when the travel cost method comes in handy because it enables economists to calculate the dollar value of nonmarket goods. The idea is that travel expenses people incur to visit a lake, e.g. gas, represent how much they value using the lake.

Throughout July we surveyed people with recreational watercraft (e.g., pontoon, fishing boat, jet ski) at boat launches at Lake Menomin, Lake Chetek, Tainter Lake, and Rice Lake. We asked recreators how many miles they traveled to arrive at the boat launch and the number of times they have visited the lake in the past year. To obtain travel costs, we multiplied the number of miles traveled by the IRS reimbursement rate of 54.5 cents per mile. From the annual visit rates and travel costs, we then modeled a demand curve using negative binomial regression and calculated that each person values one trip to the lake at $230.23. This number is surprisingly close to the value of one trip to Lake McKenzie, a pristine water body located in Australia, which Fleming et al. found to be $243.

So what is the total recreational value of the four lakes? If we assume all 8,496 boaters in our watershed visit the lakes at least once a year, then they are worth at least ($230.23 x 8,496) $2 million every year. If we assume 5 trips per year instead of 1, the estimate increases to $10 million. Again, these numbers concern only recreation. It does not embody the overall economic value of the lakes because we do not account for factors such as recreators’ impact on local businesses and housing prices. Despite disregarding these components, we find that the lakes are still inherently worth a lot of money.

Our research demonstrates that lakes in the Red Cedar Basin are valuable resources for recreation even though they suffer from severe algal blooms. But how could the lakes be nearly as valuable as a clean lake in Australia? From talking to visitors on survey days, I was able to identify some possible answers to this question. When asked about thoughts on the current water quality, most people responded that they are unhappy about the algae scum but do not mind still boating or fishing if they do not touch the water. Others have accepted algal blooms as the norm at this point and have conditioned themselves to be fine with their presence.

Although we found that the lakes are worth a lot of money even when they are dirty, I believe that this finding gives us more of a reason to clean up our lakes. Imagine how much more valuable the lakes would be if the waters were clear instead of green. Imagine the tremendous benefit for local economies, for lakefront property owners, and for people who are currently discouraged from using the lakes because of poor water quality. We need to better manage our lakes, but we should do so with a positive outlook that they are valuable water resources rather than undesirable problems.

Kirsten Ondris - 2018 LAKES REU student

Kirsten Ondris

Civil Engineering at The Cooper Union - New York City, NY

Faculty Mentor: Arthur Kneeland

Research Poster: Spatial Sedimentation and Phosphorus Dynamics Trends Along Wild Rice Beds

Kirsten is a New Jersey native and is a senior studying Civil Engineering at The Cooper Union, a small college located in New York City. Despite being surrounding by tall towers and immense infrastructure, Kirsten is passionate about the environment and water. Looking to separate herself from the repetitious trends of engineering industry, Kirsten was drawn to the LAKES REU to understand how research and social sciences can tie in with engineering practice. During her summer in Wisconsin, Kirsten would most likely be found exploring the Red Cedar State Trail, eating pie at the Ludington Guard Band Shell, or talking with the locals to better understand what makes Menomonie so special. After graduation in May 2018 and during the years that follow, Kirsten plans to travel outside of the country, pursue a doctorate degree, and develop improved partnerships between academia and industry.

Read Kirsten Ondris' Research Summary

Giving Plants the Power: Phosphorus Dynamics Along Wild Rice Beds

View Research Project Here

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 (among others). 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 show that wild rice can both grow and thrive in Northwestern 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 our hypothesis 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 releases 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, within a larger ecosystem restoration approach, to return the lakes their historic, clean state.

Jennifer Pantelios - 2018 LAKES REU student

Jennifer Pantelios

Environmental Geology at Beloit College - Beloit, WI 

Faculty Mentor: Matt Kuchta

Research Poster: Nutrient Implications of Bedrock and Lake Sediment on Cyanobacteria Growth

Jennifer grew up in the city of Chicago and was drawn to Wisconsin for her undergraduate education at Beloit College. She will complete her bachelor's degree in Environmental Geology with minors in biology and political science in May 2019. Jennifer is ecstatic to explore job opportunities working in the field of sustainability, natural resource management and wildlife conservation. Jennifer was inspired by her liberal, outspoken grandparents to pursue her interests in environmentalism and she is driven by optimism that there is always the possibility for positive change. In her free time, she finds pure pleasure in pounding away on piano keys and producing compost for all happy micro- and macro-organisms to feast on.

Read Jennifer's Pantelios' Research Summary

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

View Research Project Here

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. These cyanobacteria I am referring to is also known as blue-green algae; however, this name is misleading for they are bacteria a type of photosynthetic bacteria. Not all species of cyanobacteria are indicators of poor water quality, but the ones that are can 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.

To test the effect of sediments on cyanobacterial growth, lake water from Lake Tainter was collected and filtered to remove organic debris and grazers, or zooplankton. Rock samples of the Lone Rock, Eau Claire, Wonewoc, and Oneota rock formations were collected from roadside outcrops and crushed into fine sediment with a mortar and pestle. A few pounds of lake muck at the mouth of Wilson Creek flowing into Lake Menomin was collected. Some of the collected lake sediment was put in small handheld microbial fuel cells (MFC) for a month and a half. (Note: The microbial fuel cells used are basically systems that take the electrons through carbon fiber pads that microbes naturally emit and then those electrons are converted to voltage or energy). The rock and lake sediment was dried at 105 °C so it could be accurately weighed of 0.5 grams and put in each test tube. The test tubes used were 50 mL centrifuge tubes. Three replicas were set-up for each treatment type. Added to each of these tubes were 40 mL of filtered lake water and 0.25 grams of cyanobacteria (which also contained algae naturally growing in the lake). The five treatment groups were of each of the sediment types: Lone Rock formation, Eau Claire formation, Wonewoc formation, Oneota rock group, lake mud, and mud of MFC's. For the three control groups, the first contained filtered lake water and cyanobacteria with nothing additional added, the second had a combination of dissolved synthetic potassium nitrate and potassium phosphate, and the third had synthetic dissolved nutrients of potassium nitrate, potassium phosphate, and ferrous sulfate. The synthetic nutrient solutions were added at a known concentration, unlike the other treatments. Once set-up, the centrifuge tubes were put in an incubator lit with UV light and set at a temperature of 30 °C for 48 hours. Next, the tubes were taken outpoured into a filtering system where the cyanobacteria were caught onto filter paper and a vacuum sucked out the water from below it. Care was given not to pour sediment from the treatment groups onto the filters. The filters were dried in a standard convection oven and weighed. Then the sediment in the centrifuge tubes was dried, weighed, and calculated of their biomass within the sediment. Analysis was also done to measure the soluble phosphorous of the various sediments.

The result of this experiment was that the lake sediment produced the most cyanobacterial population growth. Legacy and background phosphorous runoff have gathered in the sediment over a long stretch of time beginning from before it was known that agricultural runoff, septic tank leakage, and urban runoff were so problematic for our water bodies. Legacy runoff refers to human-produced runoff, whereas background runoff refers to natural bedrock sediment runoff.


The most soluble phosphorus was found in the lake sediment and MFC sediment. The anode (lower part of the microbial fuel cell) contained less soluble phosphorous than the cathode. An explanation for this could be that phosphorous was made soluble in the lower anode section of the mud by microbes and moved into the watery upper section of the mud within the MFC. Phosphorous tends to bind with nutrients such as aluminum, iron, and calcium in the sediment and does not stay in the water column for long. Of my research findings, more research would need to be done on this project to test the accuracy of the results with the repetition of this experiment.

Recommendations from this experiment would be to make sure buffer zones, or vegetation, were planted surrounding the entirety of lakes and river bodies to mitigate further runoff from running into the water of either bedrock or agricultural and urban runoff. Although the bedrock did not increase cyanobacterial growth as much as the lake sediment had, there still was an increase so measures can be taken to prevent further runoff from affecting the surface waters. This is considering exposed rock formations and not the ones that are buried by vegetation or exposed to groundwater. As for the nutrients that are within the lake and are a combination of legacy and background runoff, efforts could be made to unbind phosphorous from the sediment and move it into the water column for aquatic plants to utilize, such as duckweed. When phosphorus is bound to other nutrients, it is unavailable to plants. Then, the aquatic plants can be removed from the lake as used as phosphorus-containing compost for farms and/or garden before the plant's decay and release the phosphorous back into the water again. To do this, one possibility would be to put a microbial fuel cell in the lake sediment on a larger scale. Tests would need to be done to see if this could work.

From this summer research experience, I have changed in the sense that I know the importance of patience and flexibility when running lab experiments, for there will be obstacles to work with and the need to fix what isn't working. Changed in the way that I feel more comfortable talking to people with opposing views to my own and attempting to understand their differing views. Environmental and social issues can be overwhelming and daunting to try to solve, but I know we can do this and I want you to believe that too.

Lucia Possehl - 2018 LAKES REU student

Lucia Possehl

Geography at University of Vermont - Burlington, VT

Faculty Mentor: Innisfree McKinnon

Research Poster: On Common Ground: Cultivating Farmer Communities in Pursuit of Conservation in Wisconsin's Red Cedar River Watershed

Read Lucia Possehl's Research Summary

Finding Common Ground: Cultivating Farmer Communities in Pursuit of Conservation

View Research Project Here

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 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 the interviewees pursued some type of environmentally minded farming practice. Some of the conservation practices in common included cover crops, the implementation of grass 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 a better crop yield and increased the overall health of their landscape. Many simply said that conservation is “what is right” and feel 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 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, at the heart of this issue is the fundamental importance of being heard. In a constantly changing economy, farmers interviewed 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, “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 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 dialogue 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 being heard and the value of listening to others. I quickly found that the 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. I want to express my most sincere gratitude to all 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.

Tara Smith - 2018 LAKES REU student

Tara Smith

Environmental Studies at University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, NC

Faculty Mentor: Innisfree McKinnon

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

Read Tara Smith's Research Summary

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

View Research Poster Here

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 narratives expressing ideas, opinions, and motivations rather than numbers we attach to those kinds of things. For our research, Lucia and I interviewed 23 stakeholders across the watershed: 9 farmers and 14 other property owners.

For my research 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 document 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. 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 most of the interviews ourselves, and coded as well, we were very familiar with the material by the time we reported our respective results. 

During this process, I identified several themes that I wanted to explore and expand upon with my results. 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 blue-green, stinky algal blooms) to those caused by invasive species. As a result, a majority of their resources in the north 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 and/or if they mow to the water edge. 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. 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 35+ foot buffer strips and emergent native 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 interviewed 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 and others 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!

Zayyan Swaby - 2018 LAKES REU student

Zayyan Swaby

Engineering Science at Stony Brook University - Stony Brook, NY

Faculty Mentor: Matt Kuchta

Research Poster: Power Production of Limiting Nutrients in Microbial Fuel Cells 

Zayyan was raised in Valley Stream, New York.  She is currently a senior studying engineering science with a concentration in environmental engineering at Stony Brook University in New York.  She started her college career as a mechanical engineering major but as junior, she realized her passion for the environment and switched majors.  She has always had an interest in the environment.  Learning from her first two years in college, Zayyan has a goal to mix engineering with her passion for the environment.  When she isn’t studying for her numerous exams, you can find Zayyan talking to her aloe plant and cactus.  After her May 2019 graduation, she plans on continuing her education by completing a master’s degree in Material Science at Stony Brook University.

Read Zayyan Swaby's Research Summary

Technology in the Lakes

View Research Project Here

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 phosphorus”.  It has been built up for such a long time that even if we eliminated the agricultural and domestic runoff of the phosphorus levels into the lake, this legacy phosphorus would still be high for some time.  This is something that needs to be recognized and investigated more.   

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 improve the water quality but also to create the electric potential.  In my research I looked at the creation of the electric potential; future studies using larger cells could be used to improve water quality on a smaller scale.  

The amount of power produced by each cell was compared over a three-week period.  Using five groups of MFCs, I used lake sediment spiked with four different solutions and a control set-up.  Some of the surrounding bedrock in the Red Cedar Watershed has large compositions of varying limiting nutrients.  The glauconite formation contains iron and the apatite formation contains phosphorus.  We then used a mixture of potassium nitrate and potassium phosphate to test nitrogen as a limiting nutrient.  Five groups were set-up: a control, a glauconite mixture, an apatite mixture, a glauconite and apatite mixture, and finally the potassium nitrate and potassium phosphate.   

For a total of three weeks, power output measurements for each of the MFCs were recorded.  Something interesting about MFCs is that you can visually see a difference in the sediment over time.  The longer the MFCs are hooked up to a circuit gives the microbes or bacteria more time to continue metabolizing.  This changes the color of the top layer of sediment.  The longer the color change typically means the more electric potential created.  The results of the set-up, however, did not show this.  The MFC with the longest color change in sediment was the glauconite set-up, but the apatite recorded the most power.  A possible reason for this is that something inside the glauconite mixture was leaching electrons away from the circuit and acting as an electron acceptor.  This could either be air bubbles in the sediment or other bacteria that may have been living on the glauconite rock before it was mixed in with the lake sediment.  

The potassium nitrate and potassium phosphate set-up never showed a display of power over the three weeks.   It either created too little to even be acknowledged or it just never started emitting power at all.  To understand more about this, I filled another MFC that contained composted cow manure with potassium nitrate.  Nitrate seemed to be the issue in this case because the apatite formation and the control both contained phosphorus and showed high indication of power output.  The MFC pre-nitrate spike was emitting 50 microwatts of power.  Over the course of three days the power dropped to nearly 0 microwatts.  From this, I assumed that the potassium nitrate was acting as an electron acceptor and creating various nitrogen-based compounds in the sediment as a result.  To understand this on a greater level, more research should be done.  

While all the data was being collected for the MFCs, I also began working on an electronic circuit using various sensors and Arduino micro-controllers.  I wanted to leave a lasting impression on the community by taking the first steps to creating a website/phone app called Menomi-net.  Menomi-net is a seed idea from Dr. Matthew Kutcha in the geology department of UW-Stout.  It will provide water quality data at various locations on Lake Menomin.  Using the Arduinos, it will receive information from the GPS locations for those who frequently visit the lake as well as researchers interested in studying more about the lake.  Due to a time crunch this summer, Menomi-net is still a seed idea.  However, I was able to create a code, circuit, and prototype that can be useful for Menomi-net.  At the moment the prototype can only test water temperature as well as measure the sediment voltage when attached to an MFC.  But I have hopes that it will be able to provide much more water information.  The prototype can be found in the UW-Stout's Dirt Lab in a tank called Mini-nomin.     

This project can be expanded in many different groundbreaking ways.  Microbial fuel cells are interesting devices that have a lot of uses.  While these specific cells were too small to create power that is significant enough to use as a power source, they are a good reminder about what is going on under the surface of the lake and that the legacy phosphorus should not be ignored.  On a slightly larger scale MFCs can create hundreds of microwatts of power.  If harvested properly , these can ultimately be used as power source for small scale projects, like powering an AA battery or an LED.  Menomi-net, will hopefully be available in the upcoming years.  It can be used to display more water quality data.  It is important for the community members to be aware of the issues going on around them, and Menomi-net would be a useful way to do that.