For the past two summers, UW-Stout professor Nels Paulson has directed the LAKES REU summer research project that brings college students from around the country to study the algae blooms that have degraded the lakes, rivers and streams in the Red Cedar Watershed.
Addressing the Dunn County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday night, Paulson shared some of the key insights that have emerged from the students' experience and research in Linking Applied Knowledge in Environmental Sustainability-Research Experience for Undergraduates.
It turns out that the primary solution lies in managing and keeping the soil on the land, instead of the waterways, in a sustainable way through practices like no-till farming, planting cover crops, creating grass waterways and improving manure storage.
Paulson said that fixing the problem would add, conservatively, another $36.6 million annually to the local economy in Menomonie alone. Next summer, the LAKES REU group's research will take them further north in the watershed to examine the chain of lakes in the Chetek area.
"Here's the problem with science, though," Paulson said. "It's never enough to just get new knowledge out there. That's not what triggers change."
Several years ago, the environmental sociologist produced "Troubled Waters", a documentary about the issues facing the Red Cedar Basin. The documentary was shown in middle and high schools throughout the watershed.
Surveying science teachers and students after they viewed the film, Paulson learned that while they found the information enlightening, the group wasn't willing to talk or work with other people to share their newfound knowledge. They were, however, willing to help by changing their personal behaviors to shrink their own ecological footprint.
Truly responsible people can cut their consumption of an estimated 24 acres of productive land in half. But as Paulson pointed out, the world's population is predicted to increase to 9 billion by 2050: "For humanity to sustain itself on this planet ... we need to cut down to about four or five productive acres, which means that we need to start constraining one another tremendously."
According to Paulson, in order to get people to agree to the kind of constraints needed to ensure life in the future, there needs to be a functional democracy in which people spend their time talking with one another, gaining other perspectives, understanding one another's concerns, and learning how to compromise.
That's what democracy in the U.S. looked like, he said, when French aristocrat Alexis de Toqueville spent nine months traveling in America in the 1800s to understand and write about the concept.
Things have changed a lot since then, Paulson noted, citing "Bowling Alone" by Robert D. Putnam: "Just in the last quarter century, we've seen a 58 percent drop in people attending club meetings, a 43 percent drop in families eating dinner together, a 35 percent drop in just having friends over to our houses."
What's needed is a return to spending time connecting with one another in real ways as a community.
Person to person
To prove his point, Paulson recounted his study of the success of the active farmer-led watershed council in northern Dunn County.
"What I found is that farmers can be connected to a network of only a few people and still have access to a large amount of information," he said. "They tend to make the best choices for best management practices when they learn from just one other person who's connected to a bunch of other people within the network."
Paulson offered another concrete example with the results of a recent 30-minute brainstorming session with members of the county's Land and Water Conservation Division and Dick Lamers from the Tainter Menomin Lake Improvement Association.
During their discussion, they came up with a list of actions that can be taken to address the issues of the phosphorus run-off that feeds the annual algae bloom.
In addition to the expansion of the demonstration farm, K-12 education programs and farmer-led councils, the list also includes:
- Community education
- Attendance at the Red Cedar Watershed Conference on March 10
- County-funded cover crop program
- Public trust doctrine promotion
- Begin repairing the 58 erosion sites identified in the county
"What every single great democracy in the last 1,500 years ... has shown us is that when we connect to one another in real ways, we connect to nature better in real ways," Paulson told the board. "The most important thing is that we do it as a community and not expect individuals to do it."