2017 LAKES REU Student Researchers

Meet the 2017 LAKES REU team and view their research projects.
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Madison Biggs

Madison Biggs

Quantitative Economics at Drake University
Faculty Mentor: Chris Ferguson

Research Poster: Implications of Soil & Water Quality on the Economies of the Red Cedar Watershed

Madison was born and raised in Overland Park, Kansas and is currently studying Quantitative Economics at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Madison started out as an Environmental Policy major, but soon became an "economics nerd" after discovering the complex relationship between the economy and environmental issues. She chose an economic degree because she believes that she can utilize this knowledge of the business world to discover incentives to transition to a more environmentally-friendly US economy. After graduation in May of 2018, Madison will either be in graduate school pursuing a masters or PhD in Economics, or she will be joining the workforce as an economic associate, analyst, or consultant. If you can't find Madison teaching in the Drake Economics Tutoring Lab, then she's probably lifting weights, watching Bates Motel on Netflix, or desperately trying to find beer and cheese curds that are as good as Wisconsin's.

Read Madison Biggs' Research Summary

Implications of Soil & Water Quality on the Economies of the Red Cedar Watershed/
View Research Project Here

These are common misconceptions about the effects of tackling water and soil quality issues. However, after researching this concept at the University of Wisconsin-Stout for 8 weeks, Dr. Chris Ferguson, fellow student researcher Ryleigh Prochnow, and I discovered that improving the health of the environment can have a positive impact on the local economy. 

In 2015, The Red Cedar Water Quality Partnership created a plan to reduce the amount of phosphorus pollution into the water bodies of the Red Cedar Watershed. This plan has various goals to reduce phosphorus runoff aimed at agricultural and residential properties, and these strategies are to be implemented over a ten-year span. So the question that we wanted to answer is: how is this ten-year water quality strategy going to affect the local economy? 

In order to model the economies of Dunn and Barron Counties, we utilized a program called IMPLAN, which is an input-output software system. This modeling system allows researchers to provide inputs that are expected to change the economy, and then IMPLAN provides us with the outputs. For example, we have materials and labor in construction projects that will reduce waste runoff, and those inputs branch out and spill over into 226 other sectors of the economy.

Our cost estimates originate from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). We also wanted to incorporate the value of soil in our economic impact, which is very uncommon in current and previous economic research. This was achieved by incorporating Francisco Arriaga’s research from UW-Madison. Arriaga determined that if we have one cubic ton of soil, and a certain percentage of it consists of Phosphorus, Nitrogen, Potassium, and organic matter, then we can assign current market values to those percentages and value how much the eroded soil is worth. 

From our research, we can see that this implementation plan has the potential to grow the local economy by $38 million by 2025. The value of soil that would be saved is approximately $2 million, and jobs would increase by 449 new positions. From an individual landowner’s perspective, whether the benefits outweigh the costs is unclear because of the variability in each case; however, previous research indicates increased savings or no changes in costs in the long run for farmers in particular when implementing many of the strategies outlined in the TMDL plan such as no-till and cover crop systems. What’s exciting about this research is that we have the potential to witness economic growth while attempting to solve a serious environmental issue. This completely goes against the widely held belief that environmental investments kill jobs and hinder growth. 

Along the lines of growth, the LAKES REU Program has helped me grow in ways I could not have imagined. It has given me the ambition to work towards my dream of getting a Ph.D. in Economics, and it has given me confidence in my ability to do so. Our mentors are so incredible that I’m finding it difficult to put into words. They inspire us, make us laugh, and ask us the tough life questions that help us grow in our perspectives on life. I feel so grateful for the opportunity to work here in Menomonie with these wonderful professors, and for the experience of engaging in finding solutions to real-life problems.


Jimmy Chin

Economics and Asian Studies at University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
Faculty Mentor: Zach Raff

Research Project: Effects of Agricultural Nutrient Additives on Surface Water Quality

Jimmy Chin is a senior studying Economics and Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He hopes to go to graduate school for economics and has interests in labor and public economics, political economy, and philosophy of economics. Currently, he is writing a senior thesis on intergenerational mobility.

Read Jimmy Chin's Research Summary

Effects of Agricultural Nutrient Additives on Surface Water Quality
View Research Project Here

The water in Dunn County is green. We know nutrient runoff is a major contributor to the algal blooms that can be found in Lakes Menomin and Tainter, but how can we most effectively reduce the amount of these nutrients getting into our lakes and rivers?

Part of the solution might be found in the farmers’ use of nutrient additives. Our research indicates that switching from chemical fertilizer to manure could significantly decrease the amount of total phosphorus in Wisconsin’s surface waters. 

Using water quality and farming data from four states, including Wisconsin, we estimate that a one percent increase in farm acres using manure instead of fertilizer leads to a 0.019 mg/L decrease in total phosphorus levels. 

Given the controversy over the environmental effects of manure spreading, this result may seem counterintuitive. How is it that switching from fertilizer to manure improves water quality?

The answer may lie in the beneficial attributes of manure. Because animal waste consists of organic matter, applications can improve a variety of soil characteristics, including increased water infiltration rates and water-holding capacity that help reduce runoff. One study, for example, showed how cropland treated with poultry litter took eight times longer than untreated cropland to begin runoff after rainfall. Using manure to replace highly soluble chemical fertilizer may also explain why farmland treated with manure experiences decreased rates of runoff.

But we only get these benefits if manure is applied correctly. Nutrients from animal waste can similarly enter surface water if manure is managed poorly. Examples might include spills, winter spreading, and excessive application. (Manure may also negatively affect well water quality. However, our study only looks at surface water quality.)

Further, our result is stronger evidence for the effectiveness of manure spreading, as our data include farmers with poor manure management practices. If our aggregate analysis includes over-appliers and winter-spreaders, and our result still indicates a positive effect, it stands to reason that manure usage’s effect on surface water quality would be even greater if all farmers had spread at correct rates.

Thus, our analysis suggests that substituting manure for chemical fertilizer can significantly improve water quality. Policies that encourage such a change could reduce the eutrophication of rivers and lakes, thereby leading to environmental and economic benefits. Our research simulates these economic gains for some home owners in Dunn County. If a policy caused five percent of farm acres contributing to nutrient loading in the county to switch from fertilizer to manure, lakefront property values would increase by $1,587. Larger changes of 10 and 15 percent could increase values even more – by $7,935 and $12,696, respectively.

However, considerations for deciding whether to adopt manure are complex. While it may be better for water quality, there are legitimate concerns about animal waste’s variable nutrient content, weed seeds, and its costs of transport and application. Further work is needed on policies that will make manure usage more cost-effective and appealing to farmers. Moreover, efforts are needed to encourage correct rates of nutrient application that are critical for reducing water pollution. Cleaning up our water is no easy task. But for now, knowing manure may be more effective than chemical fertilizer for reducing runoff is a step in the right direction.

Picture of Kayleigh DeBruyne

Kayleigh DeBruyne

Anthropology & Environmental Biology at Pacific University
Faculty Mentor: Tina Lee

Research Project: Tapping into the Past, Present and Future: Building Capacity for Water Quality through Community Organizations

Kayleigh is a native of Bloomington, Indiana and credits her Midwest roots for helping teach her the importance of community. An alumna of Conserve School, formative experiences in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and Sylvania Wilderness Area opened her eyes to the power of learning and building communities in the outdoors. She has carried these values into her life as a four-year employee leading canoe trips at Camp Manito-wish in Boulder Junction, WI, and led her to pursue a double major in Anthropology and Environmental Biology at Pacific University. Kayleigh believes that environmental problems are also social justice issues and that solutions must consider the voices of those affected. She hopes to spend her career advocating for the environmental health and safety of communities across the world by bringing their stories to the forefront. Kayleigh never passes up an opportunity to swim or be on the water, even in the face of algal blooms, and her life goal is to swim in every ocean. When not dreaming of travel, she can be found over-thinking everything, preparing baked goods to share, or drinking tea and working on a puzzle.

Read Kayleigh DeBruyne's Research Summary

Building Capacity for Water Quality Through Community Organizations
View Research Project Here

I’ve learned in the past few years of my life that community is a crucial element of what’s important to me. Thus far, for me, that has been defined as having people around me who are supportive and make me feel at home. This summer I’ve expanded my notion of community. I’ve had the chance to really think about what makes a community work, how it actually functions, and how it creates change. The term for all this is community capacity—all the elements that work together to create a functioning community: a sense of place and community, commitment, being able to define and access resources, and the ability to set and achieve goals. It is all the resources a community can bring to bear to solve important issues. At this point in my life, my interactions with community have been transitory—traveling and moving around, working seasonal jobs, being a student. I haven’t had the chance to establish myself as part of a long-term community yet. Having the opportunity to get a glimpse of what that looks like this summer in Menomonie has been insightful.

In past years, the LAKES project has done a lot of work researching organizations directly related to improving and protecting water quality in the watershed. Less attention has been given to the organizations more peripherally related to this issue, but certainly impacted by it, such as the Dunn County Fish and Game Club, Pheasants Forever, the Prairie Enthusiasts and others. This summer I took on the task of investigating these organizations to document what they have to add to the community’s capacity to improve water quality.

As we all know, community is not linear and it is not static. Our communities are constantly in a state of change, expanding and altering over time. They are more than just geography and encompass our social networks and communities through time too. The concept of communities through time really intrigued me, and as I analyzed the qualitative data I collected it became apparent that there were many ways that we can draw on past, present, and future contributions to build capacity. This is the lens I used to organize my findings.

Past contributions continue to add to capacity in the present. Some community organizations have long histories and a vast resource of oral histories—stories of lake and community history and tested strategies for keeping organizations going, navigating changing times, and making projects successful. Past members often contribute to efforts today through bequeathed gifts to causes they care about, and these gifts are a testament to the sense of identity and commitment members can feel as a part of an organization. Additionally, land protected through these organizations allows us to connect to resources in the past.

In the present, it is easier to see how organizations contribute with their tangible work and presence; however, there are other key ways they help build capacity that aren’t as visible. They allow outlets for civic engagement by attracting people with specific interests, such as fishing or wildflowers. The topic of blue-green algae may not be enticing to everyone, but working with wildflowers might, and the environmental protections an organization focused on prairie restoration, for example, might work towards could help improve water quality. These groups create community and help people develop a sense of trust that allows them to ask questions, discuss issues, and gain knowledge. These resources can then, in turn, contribute to water quality efforts. Just as importantly, their work can also foster a sense of connectedness—among individuals and between individuals and their environment—creating a shift in how individuals view their place in the world. This can, in turn, lead to people identifying themselves as stakeholders in other environmental issues.

Lastly, these organizations help build future capacity. They build a shared vision for the future. Land easements and protections save resources for future communities to use. Fundraising builds economic capital for projects down the road. The social networks created and the dissemination of information among memberships can create political will to influence future policy. Another important element of building future capacity is youth. They are a part of our communities now, but they have great power to shape how our communities will look in the future. Community organizations’ engagement with youth builds capacity through funding scholarships, providing educational programming, and encouraging youth leadership. Involvement at a young age can lead to an identity that encompasses a sense of responsibility to contribute to one’s community, and community organizations allow members to demonstrate this value in practice.

It was clear to me that these organizations add to our capacity as a community to address environmental issues; however, many people I talked to also expressed the challenges they face. A primary concern was how to get information out to different groups effectively. Another challenge is with managing memberships, whether that is retaining members, receiving consistent participation, or dealing with aging memberships and/or seasonal members (including students). Moving forward, social media and communications training for these organizations is a necessary investment for providing them with a resource to expand their impact.

Supporting and encouraging involvement in these groups is important and necessary work in the watershed. It allows us to expand our involvement, increase our impact, keep people engaged, and tap into communities of the past, present and future. Continuing past collaborations and building additional ones between groups concerned directly with water quality and those peripherally related to it are ways to continue to grow our capacity for change. Through my work I’ve had a chance to really understand what makes a community work and the complex processes that go on within it. Menomonie has an immense ability to continue to build its capacity for improved water quality by utilizing the diverse array of communities within it, including those across time.

Peace on the Waterways.

Amber Georgakopoulos

Amber Georgakopoulos

Applied Social Science at University of Wisconsin - Stout
Faculty Mentor: Tina Lee

Research Project: Nothing is Certain but Fish and Taxes: Water Quality Perceptions and Discourse in Chetek

Amber Georgakopoulos, born and raised in the woods of Wisconsin, is back to her native stomping grounds to study Applied Social Sciences at UW-Stout. With a concentration in Sociology and Anthropology and a minor in Economics, she falls in love with research projects almost as quickly as she does with people. Her adventures in the beer industry, the youth hostel circuit, and the wild streets of Boston have deepened her appreciation for the beautiful and complicated connections between community and place, and continue to drive her interest in environmental studies.  As an undergraduate, she is content to frolic in datasets and make the most of whatever interesting prospects come her way- especially if those scenarios happen to include bonfires, whimsical business opportunities, and minimal physical exertion…the combination of which she fully expects to serve her well in graduate school.

Read Amber Georgakopoulos' Research Summary

Water Quality Perceptions and Discourse in Chetek
View Research Project Here

We spend a lot of time talking about “the environment.”

We talk a lot about what we can do to protect the environment, to improve it—as if we could somehow take a step back and see the planet as separate from ourselves.  Discourse surrounding our natural resources often tends to be from an outside perspective: eager plans to shape and defend and save the world, plans made from a calculated distance.  This summer, I had to strive to hit the sweet spot of ethnographic research: become a part of the community I wanted to comprehend while maintaining a clear and focused role in data collection and analysis.  I tried to grasp how a society realizes its relationship with the lakes and waterways that surround it.

I spent the last eight weeks researching a small northern portion of the watershed, centered on the city of Chetek. My goal was understanding: an understanding of the relationships within a community, and an understanding of the stakeholders’ views about environmental issues and the impact of water resources on their lives. 

In previous years, LAKES REU studies have been heavily focused on Menomonie and Dunn County, so my research was deliberately targeted towards Chetek and the northern portion of the watershed in an effort to expand our data and provide a more holistic image of the watershed’s potential for positive change.  As I listened to community members, I started to piece together some common themes.  Some of the conversations that came up again and again focused on the viability of establishing a Lake District, the importance of fishing as an economic motivator and its role in building a sense of place, and the dynamics of a rural community with a prevailing tourist population.

Unlike Menomonie, people flood to Chetek to use their waterways, making summer the busy season.  Although in some places there might be a resentment between the people who come seasonally to use the water and the people who remain year-round and bear the burden of maintaining it, this isn’t what I heard in Chetek.  Over and over again, I saw a respect on both sides. Tourists who return year after year consider this area a kind of home, their summer identity.  I also saw local people who understand the tourist ebb and flow and appreciated the social and economic boom for three months of the year—appreciated it enough to get over the increased waiting time at a stop light in July.  This respect means there is a greater potential to work together to protect common resources.

Locals and tourists alike also talked about fishing—what was biting, where, and on what.  That ethos is already established, and it is a natural stepping stone. There is great potential to go from the care and curation of a healthy fish population to broader efforts to protect water quality.  This is the power of anthropological research: by understanding what matters to people, we can build from that to implement relevant and sustainable policy.

Finally, there has been enormous effort put forth to preserve and improve water quality in Barron County, but that energy is often being expended by a small group of dedicated individuals.  The prospect of establishing a Lake District in the Chetek area didn’t get a whole lot of traction when it was proposed, which was disheartening for many.  But this summer, people talked to me about that debate in bait shops and at bars and on beaches. Overwhelmingly, they were in favor of establishing some sort of special taxation district.  They talked about being willing to pay to protect water, but they also voiced their hesitation.  They told me they wouldn’t vote for a tax that they didn’t fully understand the potential parameters of, that they couldn’t support it without knowing the logistics of administration or the projects that it would be used for.  Identifying these roadblocks is critical, and the divergent narratives in Menomonie and Chetek underline the importance of listening to stakeholders across the watershed in order to work together for meaningful change. 

Going into this research project, I was careful.  I set up interviews and attended meetings, made list after list of the people I wanted to talk to that I trusted would have valuable insight.  I wanted to do justice to this area. I wanted so badly to add something to the ongoing project that mattered, and I thought that I could do that with enough planning and pestering and by asking just the right questions. What I didn’t factor in were the conversations I had by chance. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t simply schedule a window of time and expect people to open up to me on cue.  To get a real look into the heart of a community, I had to scrap some of my carefully crafted questions and ask more about the family dog who fell in the lake and came out looking like he was dipped in green paint. I had to fully embrace participant observation and give time for the discrepancies between what people say (and believe) and what happens in real life to come to light. I had to sit at coffee shops and become a familiar face. I had to have my prudent and efficient schedule knocked on its side in order to end up, sweaty and frustrated, at the public beach and realize: I was researching this water and this was the first time I was standing in the green waves.

In order to understand a community, I had to spend time in it.

If I want to see how people feel about their lake…well, I had to get in the lake.

Picture of Stephanie Gonzalez

Stephanie Gonzalez

Geography and Environmental Studies at UCLA
Faculty Mentor: Innisfree Mckinnon

Research Project: Drones! Planes! Satellites! Remote Sensing Methods for Assessing Riparian Buffers and Land Cover

As a senior at the University of California Los Angeles, Stephanie Gonzalez is majoring in Geography/Environmental Studies. Stephanie’s interest in these fields comes from watching documentaries of animals and ecosystems around the world on PBS as a child, as she grew older her appreciation for nature grew too. In college, she was able to explore these fields academically and professionally which prompted her to select it as her major. When she is not studying or working, Stephanie is planting vegetables in her local community garden and riding her bike on trails. Stephanie will graduate in June 2018.

Read Stephanie Gonzalez's Research Summary

Remote Sensing Methods for Assessing Riparian Buffers and Land Cover
View Research Project Here

This summer I used remote sensing to look at the condition of riparian buffers in Wilson Creek and the Annis Creek Watershed. Riparian buffers are the strip of natural vegetation along the side of waterways that help to keep sediment and pollutants out of them. We can use data from remote sensing, like satellite images, aerial photography, or drones to identify areas with damaged riparian buffers.

The Wilson Creek and Annis Creek Watershed is an area of 46,946 acres, west of Menomonie, including the town of Knapp. Using satellite imagery from the US Department of Agriculture and the State of Wisconsin, I analyzed how many acres of riparian buffer each watershed has, as well as how many properties that have healthy riparian buffers around Wilson Creek and Annis Creek.

Using remote sense to understand riparian buffers can be challenging. Often it is difficult for the computer to distinguish between similar types of land use. For example, grassy wetland can look very similar to a grazed pasture on a satellite image. To assess the accuracy of the satellite images, I visually compared them to aerial photography, which shows much more detail.

I found that the satellite images were accurate a little more than 60% of the time. Therefore we can be about 60% certain that 1547 out of 2,526 acres in the Wilson Creek Watershed have healthy riparian buffers. Annis Creek Watershed has 378 out of 1,059 acres of healthy riparian buffer.

My research shows that more attention needs to be focused on Annis Creek since it is only 35 percent buffered compared to the 61 percent buffered of Wilson Creek.  Furthermore, work that is being done to promote riparian buffers can be targeted to individual properties. Community organizations and government programs can judge the conditions of riparian buffers in any given area as well as have details about individual properties using remote sensing.

Using remote sensing technology, we can identify specific areas or even specific properties that are in need of restoration. Land owners in the Wilson & Annis Creek Watershed are eligible for federal funding for projects on their land, including creek and riparian restoration projects, that improve water quality. The Wilson & Annis Creek Watershed Partnership is a group of community members working together with Dunn County conservationists to improve habitat and water quality. Their next meeting is Tuesday, October 10, 4:00pm - 5:30pm at the Stanton Town Hall. If you are interested in participating, you can contact the Dunn County Department of Land and Water Conservation.

Picture of Sadie Higgins

Sadie Higgins

Sustainable Agriculture at Hampshire College
Faculty Mentor: Nels Paulson

Research Project: Neighbor Influence: Social Connectivity and the Adoption of Conservation Agriculture

Sadie grew up on Cape Cod and currently resides in Western Massachusetts where she attends Hampshire College. She turned her lifelong passions of social justice and growing (and eating) food into an educational pursuit through her studies of Sustainable Agriculture. When she isn’t working on the Hampshire College Farm and CSA, Sadie can be found anywhere from reading a book to marching in a protest. She will graduate from Hampshire College in the spring of 2018 and hopes to fulfill her lifelong dream of WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). After a few years in the real world, Sadie is eager to attend graduate school. She hopes that these experiences will guide her in pursuing her many passions and ideas!

Read Sadie Higgins' Research Summary

Neighbor Influence: Social Connectivity and the Adoption of Conservation Agriculture
View Research Project Here

Whether it be to appease the ever-growing demand for organics or to become more environmentally friendly, conservation agriculture is on the rise.  If it becomes the new norm, it will improve our water quality immensely, especially in terms of blue-green algal blooms.  The Food and Agriculture Organization describes this agricultural approach as having a focus on improved and sustained productivity, increased profits, and food security while preserving and enhancing the environment.  It seems like the obvious solution is to have everyone practicing conventional agriculture, which generally uses excessive inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides) and intensive tillage, transition to conservation agriculture to sustain our planet.  So, why don’t we see this?

Under the broader umbrella of improving water quality in the Red Cedar Watershed, the focus of my project this summer was to see how conventional farmers can be encouraged to adopt conservation agriculture best management practices (BMPs). The BMPs that we concentrated on included no-till, riparian buffers, cover crops, managed grazing, nutrient management plans, and manure management.  

I was specifically interested in how social connections might affect BMP adoption.  Does the amount of social connections between farmers increase their likelihood to adopt BMPs?  Do trust networks among neighbors increase overall BMP adoption?

To begin exploring these questions, my research partner Elise Martinez and I drove around the Red Cedar Watershed administering surveys that farmers either took in person or mailed in.  The survey included questions about what conservation practices the farmer uses, values, and their interactions with county and agency staff.  Out of 777 active farmers in the watershed, we received 180 responses, a response rate of 23%.  We also conducted interviews with people involved in the farming community and attended farm field days to augment our numbers with qualitative data.  For my questions that focused on social connections, I relied on our last survey question, which asked participating farmers to name up to five people that they trust for farming advice.  I used these connections to build a social network map of farmers in the Red Cedar Watershed.

The social network analysis showed the relationship between the amount of BMPs used and the influence of a neighbor’s BMP use.  There is a significant positive correlation between a farmer’s BMP use and their neighbors’ BMP influence. Farmers who say they are influenced by their neighbors’ BMP use then, in turn, use more BMPs.  This relates directly to our findings of farmer connections, which further illustrates that it matters for farmers to be in the trust network we mapped out through our surveys.  On average, farmers who are connected to fewer than one person in this network say that their neighbor’s BMP use hinders their own use, and farmers connected to approximately three people say their neighbor’s BMP use supports their own.  WE also wanted to know about the geographic distribution of farmer connections, so we created heat maps that show that there is only one small area in the northwestern part of the watershed where farmers listed trusting their closest neighbors.  At first, this seems frustrating.  We predict with our regression model that there is a significant conservation agriculture gain if farmers learn from neighboring farmers’ BMP use, yet so few list that they currently trust their closest neighbors.  That said, it is really bringing to light an opportunity.  Farmers are influenced by their neighbors; however, these are not the people they immediately list as a trusted person.  Therefore, it is important to foster trusting relationships among farmers and their neighbors, especially neighbors using BMPs, to increase BMP use.

Next, I created a regression line that represents the relationship between leisure time and BMP use: the more a farmer values leisure time, the more BMPs they use on their land.  Combined with the network findings, it is important for farmers to value leisure time, but it is also important to increase their social connectivity with others in their leisure time (a form of leisure that is shrinking with the larger societal emphases on television and shopping). Lastly, I created a correlation chart that represents the relationship between the influence of a neighbors’ BMP use and each type of BMP.  The most statistically significant BMPs were midfield buffers, riparian buffers, fencing, and managed grazing- many of the BMPs that are the most visible for farmers to see one another utilizing.  In other words, farmers do pay attention to visible neighbor BMPs, which can trigger a prioritization in learning about their practices.

Overall, to increase BMP adoption it is crucial for farmers to be socially connected to build trust and share knowledge surrounding conservation agriculture.  Encouraging farmers to transition from conventional to conservation agriculture is not just a matter of making it financially feasible or increasing equipment access; it is perhaps most important for farmers to receive worthy information from people that they trust, typically information that is tried and true.

This summer was my first experience doing a long-term research project, and, as a sustainable agriculture student, these findings will always inspire me.  I love growing food and am so happy to be part of my farming community back home.  Having my research back up my instinct that social connectivity is vital in the transition to conservation agriculture is very gratifying.  Going forward with my higher education goals, it will be important for me to keep in mind how much community matters, both in terms of negating isolation and for trust and knowledge sharing.  I hope these findings will inspire others to foster these social connections between farmers moving forward in the conservation agriculture world.

Picture of Andrew Hutchens

Andrew Hutchens

Economics at University of Central Florida
Faculty Mentor: Zach Raff

Research Project: Not on My Lawn: The Effects of Minnesota's Phosphorus-Free Fertilizer Law on Surface Water Quality

Andrew Hutchens is an Economics major at the University of Central Florida. Born and raised in North Miami Beach, Andrew spent most of his childhood and teenage years around water (pools and ocean) as a competitive swimmer, which, coupled with a passion for the problem-solving and analytical nature of economics, motivated him to become a part of the LAKES REU. Participating in the LAKES REU solidified his intent to obtain a PhD in Economics and pursue a career in economic research, answering questions and proposing solutions that hopefully will contribute to creating a better world for all. When not engaged in academic or professional endeavors, Andrew enjoys weight training at the gym, watching his favorite football and basketball teams play (go Heat, Fins up, and charge on Knights!), and eating copious amounts of food.

Read Andrew Hutchens' Research Summary

Not on My Lawn: The Effects of Minnesota’s Phosphorus-Free Fertilizer Law on Surface Water Quality
View Research Project Here

For my research done over summer 2017, we analyzed the Minnesota Phosphorus-Free Lawn Fertilizer Law’s effects on surface water quality. Essentially, we set out to empirically determine if Minnesota’s statewide law had produced its intended effect of reducing phosphorus content in surface waters, e.g. lakes, rivers, streams. Doing so would allow us to conclude whether a policy of the Minnesota law’s caliber should be implemented in the state of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin state legislature enacted a similar statewide policy in 2010. However, the Wisconsin law pales in comparison to the stringency of the Minnesota law. For example, it is still possible to purchase phosphorus fertilizer in Wisconsin, while the sale has been completely eliminated in Minnesota.

We utilized total phosphorus content data from the National Water Information System (NWIS) and EPA’s Storage and Retrieval System (STORET) for all counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Our analysis utilized a fixed effects regression model with a difference-in-differences estimator included to account for the “treatment” group, Minnesota, and the “control” group, Wisconsin. 

Our analysis uses what is called a “natural experiment” in the social sciences.  Similar to medical trials, one group (Minnesota) receives a treatment in the form of the law, while the other group (Wisconsin) does not, thus acting as the placebo (i.e., control).  Fixed effects regression allows us to control for time-invariant variables (things that do not change over time- e.g., geographical incongruity), as well as entity-invariant variables (things that may change over time but not between entities- e.g., national level legislation).  Our model uses location as the entity variable, and month as its time variable.  Finally, our difference-in-differences approach enables us to estimate a causal impact of the law on Minnesota surface water quality.

In our model, we included two control variables to produce the most robust results possible: population density and mean precipitation by county.  Three models were created in total, each with increased inclusion of fixed effects and control variables.  The third and most complete model, including all fixed effects and control variables, produced results showing that the Minnesota Phosphorus-Free Lawn Fertilizer Law was significantly and directly responsible for reducing phosphorus content by 0.096 mg/l, on average, in Minnesota surface waters.

If Dunn County (or the state of Wisconsin as a whole) were to adopt a lawn fertilizer law equally as stringent as that of Minnesota, there would be significant economic benefits.  Using the most recent average water quality measure in Dunn County, we can simulate a 0.096 mg/l reduction in phosphorus content as a result of a similar law’s enactment.  This decrease in phosphorus content would result in property value increases of $3,174 per lakefront or near-lakefront property in Dunn County.

Implementing a policy like the Minnesota Phosphorus-Free Lawn Fertilizer Law appears to be relatively costless.  Thus, implementing a similar policy in Wisconsin, or modifying the existing Wisconsin policy, seems to be extremely beneficial not only to the people of Dunn County but also to the rest of the state.  Our goal now is to present this information to Wisconsin policymakers with the aim of bringing real change to fruition.

Picture of Bailey Kramer

Bailey Kramer

Applied Mathematics at University of Wisconsin - Stout
Faculty Mentor: Arthur Kneeland

Research Project: Nutrient Analysis of Stream Sediment in the Red Cedar Watershed & Mitigation strategies

Bailey Kramer studies at UW-Stout, majoring in Applied Mathematics.  She also has a degree in Ecology and Environmental Biology from UW-Eau Claire and is originally from Elk Mound, Wisconsin.  Other research projects completed as an undergraduate student include use of an infrared gas analyzer on plants.

Read Bailey Kramer's Research Summary

Nutrient Analysis of Stream Sediment in the Red Cedar Watershed & Mitigation strategies
View Research Project Here

There is a place just outside of Colfax, WI, off of highway 40, where a person can put on some waders, step into a stream, and imagine that they are a pioneer exploring their way through new territory.  I have been to this place where the silt grabbed at my feet and the water flirted dangerously close to the tops of my waders.  Eighteen Mile Creek is beautiful.  It looks pristine as it rustles softly over the rocks at its bottom, but this creek has a secret that it shares with many other streams and rivers in the Red Cedar Watershed.  It is absolutely full of P.

P is the symbol for the element phosphorus which is a widely-used additive to agricultural fields because it is an essential nutrient for plant growth.  It is only present in the earth as nonrenewable mineral deposits which must be mined and manufactured into fertilizers.  Once P is applied to the field approximately 80 to 85% of it is immobilized by a reaction with Ca, Fe, or Al ions present in the soil, making that P unavailable to plants. After application P can be mobilized through surface flow, which is one of the main ways P moves from agricultural systems to surface water. A major source of surface flow is row crops due to the large amount of bare soil that is exposed for a majority of the year. Insoluble P is bound to eroded soil particles. 

When rain falls on bare soil it detaches soil particles and causes additional erosion via runoff. Both runoff water and soil are unavailable to plants. While not readily available to most organisms, insoluble P can become a long-term source of soluble P once it has entered aquatic systems. 

Unlike many other nutrients essential to plant life that have an atmospheric pathway as part of their biogeochemical cycle, the phosphorus cycle is strictly geologic in nature. Once P has found its way into a system it is very hard for the system to balance it out. In aquatic environments, the element phosphorus is often a limiting factor to plant growth. However, in the Red Cedar Watershed P has become abundant. This has led to ongoing water quality issues like algal and cyanobacterial blooms that pose hazards to both human health and ecosystem integrity.

The LAKES REU biology team analyzed stream sediment from Wilson and Eighteen Mile Creeks to determine its composition and viability for different reclamation measures, focusing on phosphorus as well as potassium, soluble salts, and regulated heavy metal content. We found that the levels of heavy metals were well below the ceiling limits set by the EPA. This indicates that sediment collected from the Red Cedar Watershed could be safely applied to land as a soil additive. Monitoring of all the heavy metals found within the sediment would have to be done each time it is pulled from the stream for the purpose of a nutrient additive, including mercury which was not done in our study.  The sediment in both streams had sufficient amounts of soluble P for corn growth. This indicates that the stream sediments could be used as a fertilizer and replace traditional sources of P.

Halfway down the stream I wanted to stop wading. It was too deep. The mud was too sticky. The bottom of the stream was so stirred up I did not know where I was putting my feet. My next step could lead to slipping, sticking, or topping my waders. I watched my teammates forging ahead, one fearless and the other one slow and deliberate. Did they make mistakes? Yes. A number of times I watched them slip, backtrack, get stuck in the mud, and even top their waders. They kept going and so did I. In the end we got all of our samples. Taking sediment from the streams is a mitigation strategy. It would help us to stop inputting new phosphorus into our waterways. It would help prevent the problem from getting worse. It has been done in other watersheds, just like fish exclusions, common carp fishing, constructed wetlands, floating islands, sediment traps, and dredging. What other watersheds have done are paths we could follow.

We have a choice. We can either stand uncertain and stuck in the mud or we can begin wading forward. We know what waits for us if we stand still. The deceptively clear water of our streams turns green and smelly when it flows into our lakes every summer. If we begin wading forward, trying out different mitigation strategies, we might get wet or even stuck in the mud, but at the end of our stream we might find a clear lake, shimmering in the sun. Wouldn’t that be worth a muddy, water logged pair of waders?

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Sarah Mack

Environmental Biology at Kean University
Faculty Mentor: Arthur Kneeland

Research Project: Growth of Zea mays in Reclaimed Sediment From Bridge Abutments

Sarah Mack studies Environmental Biology at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. Her interest to study this topic combines her passion for bettering humanity and love of science and math. Sarah is known for her bounty of endless questions and curiosities. At Kean, Sarah is the president of the Earth Science Club where she gets to encourage students of all majors about the environment and grow environmental stewards. When Sarah is not in the library, which is pretty much all the time, she is found in nature exploring her curiosities, hanging out with her four crazy sisters, or cooking delicious vegan meals. Sarah will graduate in May of 2018, and plans to pursue a graduate degree in the environmental field.

Read Sarah Mack's Research Summary

Growth of Zea mays in Reclaimed Sediment From Bridge Abutments 
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What if the solution to fixing the lake lies in viewing the problem as a potential solution? This summer I was fortunate to be a part of a research team that looked at the phosphorus loading situation with fresh eyes.

Harmful blooms of cyanobacteria occur annually in the nutrient rich lakes across the Red Cedar Watershed. Toxic conditions produced by cyanobacteria threaten the health of both land and aquatic life. Many efforts have been made to fix the lake system. One of the more complex solutions — removing the phosphorus which causes the blooms — poses a challenge. Not all bad though: phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient. This study proposed using phosphorus laden sediment that has been carried off farm fields as a soil amendment.

The purpose of our study was to test the possibility of reclaiming phosphorus loaded sediment from the Red Cedar Watershed to be used as a soil amendment. Through experimentation with varying ratios of sand to reclaimed sediment, we tested the feasibility of repurposing the nutrient laden sediment. The idea is that if Wilson Creek sediment is applied to agricultural land, the crops would benefit at some undefined optimal quantity. Any amount higher than this would yield detrimental effects to plant growth.

Sediment was collected from Wilson Creek where it runs under the bridge along 390th Street in Menomonie. The sediment was mixed by percent volume to form five ratios (0 to 100 percent) of sand to sediment. Within each of the five treatments, 36 corn seeds were planted and then monitored for 21 days. Shoot height and number of leaves were measured twice a week. On day 21 of the experiment, the plants roots and shoots were measured, oven dried, and then weighed.

We found that using reclaimed sediment from bridge abutments might improve some plant growth characteristics. The greatest amount of growth was observed in the 50 percent sediment to 50 percent sand ratio, while least amount of growth was observed in the 100 percent sediment to 0 percent sand ratio.

This study provides a small glimpse into the future of sediment reclamation strategies and its effects on agriculture and water quality. Like many scientific studies, there were many failures paired with numerous successes. As our research offered great preliminary observations and results, we plan to repeat the experiment to really understand the system. This fall we hope to replicate this experiment using a highly-controlled growth chamber and a longer growing period.

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Elise Martinez

University of Colorado at Boulder
Faculty Mentor: Nels Paulson

Research Project: Growing Conservation Agriculture: Farmers and Ag Education

My name is Elise Martinez and I am in my senior year at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  As a Colorado native and lifetime outdoor enthusiast, I have always been a passionate advocate for the environment.  After interning at Growing Gardens, a Boulder community fruit and vegetable farm, as well as studying agroforestry and conservation biology in Brazil during my undergraduate career, I have discovered that my passions lie in the intersection between environmental stewardship and social sustainability, especially in terms of global food systems. While spending the summer in Wisconsin, I enjoyed splashing around in Lake Superior, bonding with my fellow researchers during work and play time, eating an unreasonable amount of cheese curds, and working it all off running and biking on the Red Cedar State Trail.  I have always been most happy when I am completely immersed in the physical environment around me, so after graduation this May, I am considering volunteering for the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program in order to gain more knowledge about various food systems around the world.

Read Elise Martinez's Research Summary

Growing Conservation Agriculture: Farmers and Ag Education
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Our summer’s sociological research on farmers had an ending that felt more like a beginning, hopefully offering some optimism to the question of “Is it too late to fix our lakes?”.  After analyzing about 180 survey responses from a list of active farmers in the Red Cedar Watershed, we absorbed all kinds of information about their practices, values, and experiences interacting with different agencies and organizations.  We also explored ways to analyze farmers’ social networks by asking farmers to list individuals that they trust for farming advice, knowing that farmland is the dominant determinant of both land and water quality.  In short, conservation agriculture matters a lot for water quality, and we need to know more about farmers’ constraints in transitioning more to improving the long-term physical stability and biological integrity of the farming landscape.  In the final weeks of this research project, our sociology team of three spent many hours working on statistical regression models of several different kinds and reviewing our notes from interviews with various people within the conservation agriculture movement here in Dunn County, including both farmers and those who work with farmers extensively.  As challenging as it has been to pinpoint our findings at times, one element has been prominently featured in my research findings—the importance of educational opportunities for farmers.

Our survey was designed to assess how farmers’ felt about participating in several types of educational opportunities ranging from livestock management to economic projections to soil health.  Among these education options, attending conferences on conservation agriculture, particularly along with other farmers, seemed to be an especially significant form of education for farmers in terms of increasing their likelihood of adopting conservation agriculture techniques. Components of conservation agriculture include: no-till, cover crops, manure management, grass waterways, nutrient management plans, conservation easements, livestock fencing and managed grazing, and riparian buffers.  After this initial finding, my research narrowed in on one specific question: Why might farmers with the lowest levels of conservation agriculture usage attend more conservation agriculture conferences with other farmers? In other words, I wanted to know what sorts of factors most influence farmers with low amount of conservation agriculture to embrace such conferences.

As with many scientific questions of this nature, it was a formidable (if not nearly impossible) goal to assert a definitive or causal answer to this question. The variables that showed a statistically significant correlation with this particular group of farmers turned out to be: 1) how much their neighbor’s conservation agriculture usage supports their own adoption, 2) farmers’ social connections (e.g. with government agencies and farmer-led organizations), and 3) how frequently they test their soil.  Considering the effectiveness of farmers’ participation in conservation agriculture conferences, our research suggests that integrating farmers, especially those not yet doing conservation agriculture, into social networks with other farmers doing so.  It is also important to link those farmers more productively with government agencies like the Natural Resource Conservation Service or county Land and Water Conservation Divisions, among others.

As mentioned before, this “conclusion” feels more like a starting point for further research and initiatives.  To me, our findings are indicative of a larger and perhaps even more overwhelming theme at work.  As it stands, a problem worth mentioning is the aging generation of farmers who lack sufficient replacements in their line of work in the Red Cedar Watershed.  With the pressures that farmers are facing today economically and the perception of lowering returns on their efforts to act sustainably (which seems to not actually be the case in the long term, as you will see from our LAKES REU economics research in other articles, coming soon to the Dunn County News), the farmers I spoke to this summer feel placed in nothing less than a uniquely difficult position.  Through my observations, it has become clear that there is a wide gap between how highly farmers value and recognize the natural resources on their land and their limited ability to preserve its biological integrity, especially in terms of water quality, as single actors in a complex system. As I am finding, this is not a concern that affects farmers exclusively. Only a few days ago, I was describing the conclusions of my research to a local shop owner in downtown Menomonie.  She raised the question that I believe many residents of the Red Cedar Watershed have on their minds: So is it too late to fix our lakes?

As this question hung in the air for both of us, I thought hard about my answer.  In a technical sense and from what I have gathered from the biology team, if agricultural inputs of phosphorus were to cease completely this instant today, it still would not be enough action to remediate the situation to a healthy, ecologically-restored equilibrium tomorrow.  The legacy phosphorus is quite large in the lakes at this point.  There would need to eventually be some things done in the lakes as well.  Unfortunately, this scientific reality is not a rare one among many environmental pollution problems across the globe, but, naturally, it is not the answer that most people want to hear either. As I contemplated ways to diplomatically, yet truthfully, answer this shopkeeper’s rather daunting question, I found myself following a personal tendency to look for the silver linings in environmental problems instead.

The answer I shared with her focused on my belief that the power of new generations is often underestimated. I shared with her how our survey has shown steady improvements in education programs over time by comparing past conservation agriculture conference participants with current participants. I shared with her how younger farmers are creating more of a demand for conservation agriculture equipment, such as no-till drills, and how the economy is actively responding to that need. I shared with her stories of conventionally operating farmers who are noticing the way their neighbors are changing their land management techniques to be more sustainable and economically rewarding at the same time.  Finally, I shared with her some words of wisdom from one of my interviews with an older farmer this summer: “People used to think of farming as a natural resource…I believe that when you buy a piece of land, you are signing up to be a trustee."  I believe there is a choice to make.  One option is to look at agricultural issues as if it is a shame we have departed from this particular school of thinking.  The other is to look at these same issues as if there is a new beginning to be found in returning to the kinds of roots that this farmer described to me.  Personally, I find that this summer’s research experience has left me embracing new beginnings.

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Ryleigh Procknow

Economics and Political Science at University of Wisconsin - La Crosse
Faculty Mentor: Chris Ferguson

Research Project: How Does Water Quality in the Red Cedar Watershed Affect the Economy?

Ryleigh was born and raised in the Menomonie, WI area. She studies Economics and Political Science at University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. Although her major was undecided for most of her college career, she chose to take classes that interested her which were mostly economics and political science courses because of her passion for the well-being of individuals and communities. By studying behavior and decision-making in economics, along with the analysis of government and politics, she will be well-equipped to fulfill her passion of helping improve people and society. Besides economics and political science, she is also passionate about the environment and hopes to find a job where she can find balance between what is best for people and the environment. After graduation in May 2018, she plans to travel out west and explore the State Parks with friends. After a few years working in her field, she is considering a graduate degree economics or political science.

Read Ryleigh Procknow's Research Summary

How Does Water Quality in the Red Cedar Watershed Affect the Economy?
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Environmental sustainability has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years, and with it, has come even more controversy. Many will claim that protecting the environment hurts businesses and cuts jobs by making it more complicated to grow due to more regulations. However, my research has proven otherwise. The Red Cedar Water Quality Partnership developed a 10-year Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) strategy to reduce the amount of phosphorus emitted into Lakes Tainter and Menomin. The high concentrations of phosphorus are the primary factor responsible for the toxic blue-green algae blooms stinking up Menomonie and keeping people from entering the water.

Surveys from tourists in the Chetek area, Stout students, and data from previous LAKES REU studies and the Wisconsin Department of Tourism were used by our research team to form estimates spending patterns in Dunn and Barron Counties. These estimates were then applied in IMPLAN, an input-output software, to show the magnitudes by which local industries would be affected if there were to be changes in tourism or student population.

The results showed that if tourism were to decrease or increase, as a result of improving or worsening water quality, the local and regional economies would see significantly impacts in total output and employment. Adding up the direct, indirect, and induced effects, both Barron County and Dunn County would see a large increase in jobs and revenue if water quality improved.  The more startling discovery in our study was the fact that a further decrease in water quality, and therefore a decrease in tourism, would have even larger negative effects on the economies. The regional economy’s relationship to the quality of its water resources is at an important tipping point.

The big ticket for Dunn County’s economy, is the University of Wisconsin – Stout student population. With nearly half of the students surveyed claiming recreational opportunity as an important or essential factor when deciding to stay in Menomonie for the summer, just increasing the summer population by 1500 students would put over $2.6 million of annual total output directly into the economy. Not only that, but it would also provide about 40 more jobs. Nearly 50% of students surveyed said they would much more likely or definitely stay in the summer if there was more recreational opportunity in Menomonie and better water quality.

Another interesting finding was the amount and diversity of industries affected by water quality. Most people don’t consider businesses beyond the direct effect – the initial purchase for services. However, businesses are also impacted through the indirect effect – business to business transactions, and the induced effect – employee’s money spent from added income from increase in business. When the direct, indirect, and induced effects are measured, the largest total output growth among industries can be expected in real estate, restaurants, retail, employment for government/education, and bars in Dunn and Barron County.

Based on these findings, it is important to not only invest in improving our water quality in order to keep the economy moving forward, but to prevent the economy from moving backward and worsening the quality of life for many community members. The best solution would be to improve the water quality so future generations can enjoy the water activities and thrive on the booming economy.

This REU experience has definitely changed my life for the better. I gained so much experience in conducting research, and it made me realize this is something I would like to do for the rest of my life. Not only is conducting research fun and exciting, but it gives me the opportunity to better the lives of so many people. I am so thankful for this opportunity to work with the incredible mentors and students, especially my mentor, Dr. Chris Ferguson, and research partner, Madison Biggs. They have given me the confidence to believe I can succeed in research, in grad school, in work, and in life. Working with professors and students with various backgrounds was so inspiring, and it was fascinating to learn about the different lifestyles from around the country and share their passion for knowledge and research. This experience has given me lifelong skills and friendships that I couldn't have gotten anywhere else!

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Elizabeth Sosa

Environmental Geography at Sam Houston State University
Faculty Mentor: Innisfree Mckinnon

Research Project: Riparian Buffer Impact on Stream Health in the Wilson Annis Watershed, Dunn County, WI

Elizabeth is a undergraduate senior who studies Environmental Geography at Sam Houston State University. Her love of the natural world and curiosity for how human influence changes the natural world are the driving forces behind her passion for geography. In her spare time. she enjoys traveling to local state parks, hiking, camping, finding new local eats, and spoiling her parrots. Elizabeth will graduate in December 2017 with honors and has received awards such as the Robert & Mabel Richardson Scholarship, the Gerald L. Holder Scholarship, and is currently a teaching assistant for weather and climate. After graduation, Elizabeth plans on continuing her education and pursuing a graduate degree in geography.

Read Elizabeth Sosa's Research Summary

Riparian Buffer Impact on Stream Health in the Wilson Annis Watershed, Dunn County, WI
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A riparian buffer is a zone or strip of dense vegetation along a body of water, such as a stream or lake. This zone aids in preventing erosion and pollutants, via stream runoff, from entering the water. As part of the geography team this summer with the LAKES REU program we wanted to find out what measures of stream health riparian buffers impacted most. The area we chose to examine was the Wilson Annis Watershed, west of Menomonie, which includes the village of Knapp. We chose this watershed because it was accessible and because of the implementation of the Wilson Annis Watershed Partnership, a program dedicated to help the watershed. Within the Watershed we chose fourteen sites along Wilson and North Wilson Creek to analyze, where we had to ask landowners for their permission to enter the stream through their property where we were, several times, warned about a bull potentially coming over to the stream.

At our sites, we decided to conduct physical and chemical tests to determine current conditions of the streams. The tests we took included temperature, electro conductivity, NTU (turbidity), and dissolved oxygen in order to gather basic chemical samples. 

Stream velocity and width and depth measurements of the stream were also taken, to determine average stream discharge, macro invertebrate identification three times along each site, and a fish habitat assessment, which measures factors such as bank erosion, pool area, fish cover, and fine sediment presence. To conduct macro invertebrate testing we had to scoop under banks or scuff on riffles to get all the critters in the net, the most time consuming of the tests, where we identified these critters and later determine the quality of the water based on presence or absence of certain ones.

After weeks of trudging through creeks and multiple mosquito bites, we conducted a correlation test for all of the data gathered to determine the correlation between buffer conditions and the variables we measured. It was found that there was a high positive correlation between buffer conditions and habitat score, on average, the higher the habitat score the higher the buffer conditions were. It was also found that the most downstream sites of both streams had lower habitat scores, due to high sediment, despite having good buffer conditions. When comparing the two streams, they were found to be similar in their discharge, physical, and habitat characteristics. However, monthly monitoring of total phosphorus during 2016-17 found that North Wilson Creek has higher average total phosphorus. This is consistent with our findings that sites along North Wilson Creek both had more fine sediment in the stream bed and higher turbidity (more sediment).

Riparian buffers, overall, correlate with a better stream habitat. However, with the downstream sites on Wilson and North Wilson Creek demonstrating low habitat conditions, despite having healthy riparian buffer zones, are experiencing influxes of excess fine sediment. North Wilson Creek shows higher turbidity and phosphorus levels, despite excellent riparian buffers at most sites we tested. Other factors influencing runoff and phosphorus levels into the two tributaries could include overall land cover, topography, or slope, soil types, and the use of particular best management practices by farmers and land owners. Conclusively, stream areas with good buffer conditions have healthier habitats, demonstrating that they are very beneficial, and phosphorus differences between the two streams demonstrates that further research can be conducted to determine what other factors might be causing higher phosphorus levels in North Wilson Creek.

Stream monitoring can be done by volunteers and can provide valuable information about the health of our creeks. If you are interested in learning about how to participate, you can contact the Red Cedar Basin Monitoring Group by emailing, oringted@charter.net or calling Ted Ludwig at (715) 962-3953. Landowners in Wilson & Annis Creek Watershed are eligible for federal funding for projects on their land, including creek and riparian restoration projects, that improve water quality in the watershed. The Wilson & Annis Creek Watershed Partnership is a group of community members working together with Dunn County conservationists to improve habitat and water quality. Their next meeting is Tuesday, October 10, 4:00pm - 5:30pm at the Stanton Town Hall. If you are interested in participating, you can contact the Dunn County Department of Land and Water Conservation.

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Katherine Zuniga

Anthropology at University of Arizona
Faculty Mentor: Tina Lee

Research Project: Constraints within a Complex System: Stakeholders Respond to Large-scale Animal Agriculture

Katherine is a junior undergraduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. She’s majoring in anthropology with a focus on linguistics and culture. Katherine will graduate in 2019 and is plans to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology. Katherine became involved in the field of anthropology after taking a course at her university and finding that it reflected several of her own interests. She has been always fascinated with cultures, the people living it, and what those people have to say. For her it’s about making connections, determining similarities and differences between different sets of data. And often, things that on the surface appear to be different are actually quite similar. She wants to use her research to provide a deeper understanding of the aspects of peoples’ everyday lives which is often taken for granted. When she’s not studying and actually has spare time, Katherine enjoys drawing, going out for ice cream, and spending time with her dogs.

Read Katherine Zuniga's Research Summary

Constraints within a Complex System: Stakeholders Respond to Large-scale Animal Agriculture
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The livestock farming industry has gone through a significant transformation in previous decades. Production has progressed from smaller, family owned farms to large scale farms that regularly have corporate contracts. A majority of meat and dairy products are now being produced on large farms with single species buildings or open air enclosures. 

When reviewing existing data on agricultural operations, I noticed that there was minimal information about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or the current policies being implemented in regards to them. In addition, few have addressed the ways in which the industry has been challenged to improve or the cumulative effects of unregulated small livestock operations. 

If we hope to improve water quality, we must put CAFOs in context and take into consideration all the various factors that affect how farmers, large and small, affect water quality, as well as the limits to current environmental protection resources and how we can go about expanding them.

Why has the number of smaller dairies farm decreased while the number of CAFOs has increased? Small dairies are decreasing for a variety of reasons: owners have limited resources or capital to stay in the business, some operators experience lower efficiency at smaller scales, some farmers want to avoid the stress of working 24/7 by either getting out or expanding and hiring help, and some small dairies simply have no successor. The owners of larger operations explained to me why they sought to expand: the ability to make more profit, the opportunity to become more efficient, and the capability to have more time off and vacation time.

The growth of larger animal operations has led to public concern and a variety of actions and discussions aimed at changing policies and taking steps to protect water quality from the potential effects of large operations. Recently, a report was developed by members of the Dunn County Livestock Operations Study Group (LOSG). In observing these study group meetings, it is clear that the group effectively included participants representing a cross-section of stakeholders and those with an interest in the impacts of CAFOs on groundwater, surface water, and air quality within the County. They reviewed current ordinances and weighed revisions to existing ordinances against the creation of a new Livestock Facilities Zoning Ordinance. They took into account existing federal, state, and county regulations about waste management of large livestock operations, including nutrient management plans that regulate the discharge of pollutants from livestock production facilities and monitor the spreading of them.

While Wisconsin has implemented conservation standards for all farms, it is counties that are mainly held accountable for employing these standards. Under the current state law, smaller operations’ obligation to comply with many environmental regulations is only activated upon accepting an offer of cost-sharing. Large livestock operations, on the other hand, must meet applicable permit standards, regardless of whether or not they accept cost-sharing. In some ways, this makes perfect sense. The scale and impact of potential environmental damage from poorly managed farms is greater when the farm in question is large. There are several examples of disasters in Wisconsin from large manure spills, for example. Thus, it is vitally important to make sure these regulations are strong, while including the views of those who will be subject to them. It is also important for counties and the DNR to be able to enforce regulations. The LOSG has taken steps towards ensuring that these protections are in place.

At the same time, there is also a need to address the potential impacts of smaller farms. Although conservation needs greatly exceed cost-share funding, some funds go unspent for lack of voluntary sign-ups. Thus, sometimes problems are not addressed, either due to a lack of funds or a lack of participation. Thus, there is a need for a two-pronged approach. County departments need personnel and budgets for education and to build relationships with small farmers. This is time-intensive work that needs resources. There is also a need to increase cost-sharing budgets, over time as interest increases, so that all smaller farmers have the opportunity to make improvements to their operations where needed.

Community members should support government agencies like the Land and Water Conservation Department because their actions have great power to influence land-use and agricultural practices. They are a key link in efforts to improve water quality. Developing relationships between farmers and governmental agencies is crucial, and these agencies need our support. It’s also essential to reach out to younger individuals who are interested in agriculture or those taking over an existing operation to educate them about the benefits of using agricultural practices for environmental sustainability. Organizations like 4-H could play a role in these efforts as well.

Overall, during my time in Menomonie this summer, I witnessed a community that has worked to include a variety of viewpoints and needs while dealing with an important environmental issue. More work is still needed, but the groundwork for respectful dialogue and effective solutions has already been laid.