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The following is part of a series featuring the results of student research on water quality in the Red Cedar Watershed.

I spent much of this summer driving around with my research partner, Lucia Possehl of the University of Vermont, listening to National Public Radio and sharing our favorite playlists as we shuffled around the Red Cedar Watershed on our way to interviews.

During that summer’s research, Lucia and I interviewed 23 stakeholders across the watershed: nine farmers and 14 other property owners.

We found interesting trends in Barron and Dunn County landowners about the lakes they live by.

I focused on lakeshore property owners and other stakeholders on the lake. We found out 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.

Lucia and I met our interviewees at a location of their choice, most often their own home or lake property.

During this process, I identified several themes that I wanted to explore: firstly, 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.

I also found a 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 with 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 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, 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, 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.

How to fix that? 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-plus-foot buffer strips and emergent native vegetation to grow are best management practices for lakeshore property.

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.

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Tara Smith of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill took part in the Linked Applied Knowledge in Environmental Sustainability Research Experience For Undergraduates through University of Wisconsin-Stout last summer.

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Dunn County News editor

Barbara Lyon is the editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI.

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