Community Capacity and Perceptions of Lake Health in Chetek, WI
University of Wisconsin--Stout
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Over these past 8 weeks, I have learned many things from this community and the mentors in our REU program. While I had a pretty good sense of what research I would be doing, they guided me and my fellow REU students into thinking critically about our research. With my project specifically, I was to gain insight into the community of Chetek, WI in order to understand their perceptions of lake health, as well as what significance the lake has for the community itself. To do this, I interviewed prominent stakeholders in the community such as business owners, Chetek Lake Protection Association members, Chetek Chamber of Commerce members, and lifelong residents of Chetek. In these interviews I asked a series of questions that would allow me to understand how they viewed the lake as a resource for themselves and the larger community. In a majority of the interviews when I asked about their thoughts on the lakes health, the respondents told me that that "the lake changes from year to year" or "the health really depends on the amount of rain we have." This was significant: their perceptions were defined by the physical appearance of the lake. In short, whenever they saw green on the water, or when they noticed the lake giving off a particular smell, they believed that the lake was then unhealthy, and when it rained, it would wash away the green and the smell, causing them to view the lake as healthier. The issue with this is that while the lake does appear to look better when then it rains or the summer is wetter, this doesn't mean it is any healthier. The phosphorus pollution that is the root cause of the problem in the lakes’ overall health doesn't go away depending on the weather. It is always there even when it doesn't appear to be. Because of this perception, the community views the problem as variable, which leads to a lack of commitment to and effort toward cleaning up the lake. This lack of commitment creates a hole in Chetek's community capacity, which is a community's capability of addressing and solving problems. A solid understanding of a problem and a strong commitment to solving it is a key element in community capacity. If Chetek wants to find a way to aid the lakes health, and be proactive in not making it worse, it needs to have commitment within the community. There needs to be a common understanding of what is wrong with the lake, rather than a grouping of different misconceptions among the members of the community. This can be achieved through more communication among the organizations in the area, as well as an understanding that the lake is polluted, and that the green on the lake can happen at any time, it just hasn't yet. On the plus side, I also began to learn about the other elements of community capacity that are present in Chetek: resources and skill. Chetek has several vibrant community organizations that are engaged in working towards better water quality in their lakes. There is a (small at this point) group of citizens working on the problem who bring a host of leadership, fundraising, and planning skills to the table. These are hopeful signs, and, if coupled with a broader commitment to lake health, would put Chetek in a good position to make significant changes. From gathering these conclusions, I gained a better sense of what it means to be a cultural anthropologist performing field work, and because of this research, I was able to learn about and appreciate this unique community. This REU is an experience I will never forget, and I know participating in this has made me a more skillful researcher, on top of allowing me to have so many more new people in my life that I can now call my close friends.
Anthropology at the Auburn University