Poor water quality isn't just an aesthetic issue for Lake Menomin, it impacts fishing, property value of homes along the shoreline, the perception of the city, economic development — and the quality of life in the Menomonie area.
Lakes turn green when phosphorus concentrations are at 40 micrograms per liter. At times, Lake Menomin has registered 400 micrograms per liter or 10 times what it should be.
"It is a very difficult and critical environmental issue that needs to be solved," said Stephen Nold, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Researchers have been studying the lake for more than 20 years. Nold and fellow biology instructor, Scott McGovern, have been studying the lake for roughly five years. The team received a grant in June last year from the National Science Foundation.
The $176,818 grant, known as CRIUSE, or Classroom Research to Invigorate Undergraduate STEM Education, is split between two different objectives and will run from this year until 2015.
The first objective is to study students and their learning in response to research experiences.
"When the students sign up for my classes, they are treated like first-year graduate students, but in fact they are first-year undergraduate students," said Nold. In Biology Department's Cell and Molecular Biology I, students become research collaborators and generate data that goes into Nold's research publications.
Even students who do not need the course for their major can also enroll in the class. Nold says he and McGovern use the same approach for all their students, no matter what their major.
" It's impactful for them as well, but in different ways," Nold said. "I'm learning about the differences between students in the major and non-major students and how they learn science differently."
The NSF is interested in that kind of unique approach of sharing data with faculty at other institutions. "Studying the effects of students and their learning of biology, their attitude towards science, and their ability to think critically is very impactful," Nold said.
Finding out what works
The second objective is to study and improve the water quality in the Red Cedar watershed. Last summer, McGovern and Nold sunk big blue barrels in the lake and intend to repeat the process again this summer. In the experiment, designed by McGovern, chemicals in the barrels are added to see if they can kill the cyanobacteria and reduce the phosphorus levels. The results from this experiment will be used for other studies.
They are identifying chemical treatments that could be used on a larger scale to improve the quality of water in the lake. However, to prevent the pouring of chemicals into the lake, the instructor has kept the identity of the chemicals confidential.
"When you have the concentrations right, it could potentially clean up the lake — if you have enough chemicals," Nold said. "But it would be very expensive and the next summer, it would be green again because we're not stopping the phosphorus inputs."
It's not only important for Nold and McGovern to study the lake as biologists, but it's important for UW-Stout as the major higher education institution in the area.
"It's important for the university to be working on this issue. We are sensitive to this environmental problem and working to improve the situation," said Nold.
In addition to gathering local community and state support, the team has paired with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. One of the next steps is to garner federal support from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Moving forward, UW-Stout faculty will continue to build on support from the federal government as they seek future grants.
"Faculty from many departments on campus are working to address this problem — geologists, social scientists, ecologists, chemists, economists," Nold said. "We have lots of different tools to address this problem and are working together to do just that."