At the Raw Deal cafe in Menomonie on Wednesday, July 31, 10 undergraduate research students at University of Wisconsin-Stout presented their latest research on the Red Cedar Watershed, its problems and the ideas for solutions to those problems.
Political science professor Kim Zagorski said the students did a great job this year. Her students focused on the social science aspect of what people think about the watershed and where they think the problems arise from.
“One of the things we’re seeing is the historic ‘it’s them, not us’ is starting to change,” she said. More people are seeing that the problem affects the whole community and will require community-wide efforts to fix it. The research studies are shedding light on how complex of issue it is, while also looking at creative solutions, she said.
Faculty advisors Arthur Kneeland, a biology professor, and Chris Ferguson, an economics professor, added that the Lakes Research Experience for Undergraduates program’s purpose is to train new scientists. Students won’t fix the issues in the watershed, but will provide the ideas, data and possible solutions that area residents, local officials and watershed and farmer groups can use.
For the problem of phosphorous in the lakes and rivers, Ferguson said there isn’t one single “magic bullet” that will solve the problem, but it will be more like 20 different solutions working in conjunction.
Ferguson said they were applying for another three-year grant from the National Science Foundation in order to continue the program.
Ivy Huwald, from Humboldt State University, in Arcata, Calif., looked at how residents’ relationship to the watershed has changed through history. From a source of wild rice for Native Americans, to a source of resources for fur traders and loggers, to a source of recreation for residents and tourists, Lake Menomin today has aesthetic value for residents, rather than recreational value. “Despite negative views on Lake Menomin, people still feel a deep connect to the watershed,” she said. Finding ways to show the value of the watershed—beyond economic value—will help spur on restoration efforts, she said.
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor student Olivia Rengenier, researched how people get their news and information about the watershed. While there was a shift toward national news, around 80 percent of those surveyed said they still used local or state news sources. Both social media and local news are needed to spread information about the watershed, she said.
“Local media is still really a backbone to the community,” Rengenier said.
Nell Gehrke, from Augsburg University, in Minneapolis, Minn., surveyed people’s opinions about the issues facing the watershed and their causes. (Full disclosure: this reporter was interviewed for Gehrke’s and Rengenier’s research.) Gehrke said more people realize that efforts to solve watershed problems will require widespread, collaborative efforts.
Elizabeth Saunders, from Indiana University, in Bloomington, Ind., researched farm consolidation and crop diversity and the relation to unemployment rates and the local economy. Excluding dairy farms, where there was consolidation into large farms, there were higher unemployment rates. Where crop diversity was low, there were higher rates of people on food assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Saunders said farms have been consolidating and getting larger and crop diversity is decreasing. She added that a 1-percent increase in large farms results in a 14-percent increase in impaired rivers.
Lillian Strehlow, from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, looked solar projects in the watershed and if solar panels could be another source of revenue for farmers. While somewhat cost prohibitive, Strehlow said having solar panels in areas farmers don’t cultivate—like buffer zones around waterways—had promising potential for farmers, the environment and the community.
Marcella Domka, from University of Dayton, in Ohio, researched the use of biochar—a type of chemically treated charcoal—as a nutrient filter in the water. Biochar made with buckthorn and treated with ferrous chloride and iron(II) sulfate showed the most promise in absorbing phosphorus from the water. The biochar can be used as a fertilizer.
Domka said using biochar on a large scale was not tested, but they estimated that 20 tons of it would be needed per day to take up the phosphorous flow into the watershed.
Studying what plants were the best filter of nutrients was Madeline Tripp, from East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C. Between cedar trees, duckweed and rush grass, duckweed filtered the most nutrients in the shortest time span. But while it was more efficient, but also had to be harvested before it died. She said harvested duckweed can be used for compost, fish feed or livestock feed.
Tripp also looked at floating gardens to absorb nutrients to reduce algae blooms. To take out what is coming in, there would need to be 2.6 square miles of gardens. This was too large and not practical, but could be used on a smaller scale, she said.
Esther Ramsey, from Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minn., studied agriculture data to find fields that were at the highest risk for runoff, primarily those with steep slopes near streams or rivers. She suggested grass waterways, wetlands and contour buffers as the best ways to mitigate runoff. This information can help farmer-led councils better concentrate their efforts on runoff mitigation.
Jacey Schick, from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studied how conservation reserve program (CRP) fields impacted surface water quality. CRP fields are usually marginal fields that farmers can retire into grassland and receive a payment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.
Schick said for every 1,000 acres put into CRP, there is a 27-percent reduction in phosphorous in the water. Between 1995 and 2017, $848 million was paid out to Wisconsin farmers in the CRP. The resultant reduction in phosphorous runoff was estimated to have a benefit of $1.66 billion for recreation related to lakes, rivers and streams. Clearly the benefits outweigh the costs, Schick said.
Emily Gould, from Eckerd College, in St. Petersberg, Fla., did a similar study to Schick’s. She looked at how Section 319 grants from the Clean Water Act benefited the watershed and found the grants to be beneficial. She said the average grant of $361,137 given lake districts or watershed groups resulted in a 21-percent reduction in phosphorous.
In Wisconsin, $15.33 million had been given in grants from 2010 to 2017, and this resulted in $39.4 million in benefits to lake recreation.
While funding was decreasing for the Environmental Protection Agency, she said the grants were working and should continue to be funded.