Who Made the Lake Green? An Analysis of Public Perception
University of Wisconsin--Stout
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“Oh well you’re going to hate me because I’m a farmer,” is what my cousin Anna said after I told her I wanted to pursue an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies. A few years have passed and, despite her warnings, I do not hate Anna. But since she said this, I’ve been interested in the relationship between farmers and non-farmers in the context of conservation and the environment. This summer, Olivia and I explored the sentiments and perceptions of residents of Rice Lake and Dunn County in regards to the phosphorus pollution in the Red Cedar watershed. We conducted a mixed methods study where we used quantitative data from a public survey and qualitative data from 26 interview transcripts. We used these two methods to create a conversation between residents and policy makers, conservationists and farmers. A dialogue of commitment and connection to the health of the watershed was discovered. Two thousand surveys were sent out to residents of Dunn County and Rice Lake up in Barron County. The different LAKES research groups worked on the survey collaboratively in order to gain more information about peoples’ relationship to the watershed, who they perceive as contributing to the phosphorus pollution, media markets people in the watershed turn to for information, where folks are shopping for groceries, and attitudes towards solar panels. Obviously, not all of these questions apply to the questions Olivia and I have. The two we focused on the most were, “To what extent do the following sources affect water quality in local lakes?” and “Which of the following groups do you think are open to changing their practices in order to improve water quality?” With these two questions we learned about public perceptions about who they think is responsible for the phosphorus pollution, and how the conversation can be carried beyond the initial blame. We found folks in the watershed primarily attribute the phosphorus pollution to agriculture in the watershed. Causes such as damming of the river and natural phosphorus from the forests are also acknowledged by the public, but to a lesser extent. This is the reason why Anna said I would hate her because she’s a farmer. But, we wanted to take the conversation further than this. It turns out that the public also believes folks working in agriculture are open to changing their practices to address the water health. I carried the same sentiments when Anna and I had our conversation years ago. I knew she cared, and continues to care about the environment. We continued to create the conversation around perceptions of pollution in the watershed through the interview transcripts. Four recurrent themes were discovered. We found people are acknowledging the economic and social pressures farmers are under. Agriculture does not live in a bubble. One person said, “I think there are economic pressures for commodity crop farmers to keep producing more … That means sometimes taking out field borders that are near streams, planting too close.” The second theme we found is the acknowledgement that farmers are independent folks. One interviewee said, “You know it’s easy to say the word farmer, but they’re all individuals and they all farm a little different piece of land.” Coupled with this theme was the third theme, blaming farmers creates ill will. Many interviewees mentioned blaming farmers does not help anyone and creates animosity between groups. Which leads to our fourth theme, solutions to the phosphorus pollution will require people to work together. “Everyone’s going to have to get together and pull their own line. The rural landowners, the cities, the municipal waste system, storm water plants, storm water groups, lake districts, government officials: state, county federal.” This final theme of collaborative problem solving marries well with the belief that farmers are willing to create changes in order to support conversation found in the quantitative data. Over the summer we found the public believes farmers are the primary source of pollution, but that they are open to changing their practices. We also found that folks are acknowledging the economic and social pressures farmers are under. Our research suggests the conversation goes beyond just blaming farmers for turning the lake green. People in the community feel a strong connection to the watershed, and I believe this can be a sentiment on which to build a clean water movement. I hope future research can continue this conversation and can engage the community in the dialogue around finding solutions to the algae blooms. Perhaps, future research can include finding ways for everyone to “pull their line.” After all, in Wisconsin, we’re all upstream from somebody. Research and action to remediate water quality at the community level can have a profound impact. Anna and I just made plans to go kayaking through northern Iowa together. And you bet your bottom dollar, after a long day of paddling in the sun, we’ll enjoy some vegetables from her garden and some beef fresh from her farm.
Environmental Studies major at Augsburg University