Since 2008, student interns from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Manitowoc Campus have helped the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership check water quality along creeks and other waters ways in the area.
And each year, the data students gather helps to influence the actions of local land holders, as well as the policy of government officials. These first and second year college students will present their most recent findings at the Lakeshore Water Summit from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 10, at Founders Hall, Room 149, on the Manitowoc Campus.
And their findings are stunning, says Biology Professor Rebecca Abler. Students working with Abler and Professor Rick Hein (Biology), have found that even minor changes can have a major effect on not just creek water, but also on water downstream as well.
“What they found was that even small things can have an impact,” Abler said. “On one property, the grass clippings from mowing were falling into the nearby creek. The researchers asked if the land manager could simply point the mower so the grass clippings fell away from the water. What our research was able to show was that not only did the simple act of pointing the mower away from the water improve the water quality of the creek, but that it also had an impact all the way downstream to the quality of water in Lake Michigan.”
The research started, said Jim Kettler, executive director of the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership, in 2008 in Centerville Creek near the village of Cleveland, Wis. In that year, researchers took baseline data to determine the water quality in the area. From there the group grew into the Friends of Hika Bay, and eventually into the Lakeshore Water Institute in 2012.
Now the group has six interns analyzing data from five different Manitowoc County creeks.
“The goal is to present data, without pointing any fingers, and then to find the solutions to issues facing us,” Kettler said. “One of the great things about the research is that we’re beginning to see some long-term trends in data on some creeks so that we can make information available to our board officials which will help them to make more informed decisions.”
The lakes continue to see high levels of E. coli and phosphorous, he said, but the water in the area is seeing some improvement.
More importantly, he said, it has allowed farmers in the area to see the impacts on the water quality and to take more ownership of what goes into the water, as well as the water quality. Research from the students has identified manure leaks into the water that may have gone unnoticed previously, he said.
For Russ Tooley, a landowner in the area, the students’ work helps him to understand what is going on in the water.
When the manure spill happened, Tooley said, students were quick to notice the dramatic change in the water, and to work with the Department of Natural Resources to clean the manure spill up.
“I live on the shore of Lake Michigan and the farm was about a mile north of my house along the creek,” Tooley said. “It’s helpful for us to know that the quality of the water entering the lake is safe for us and those along the lake to swim in.”
But the study impacts more than just Centerville Creek and the creeks in the surrounding areas, Abler said. Local actions, she said, have been proven to have a trickle-down effect.
“What we are seeing is that the restoration area is having an impact on the amount of cleaner water going into the lake,” she said. “Every creek is unique. Our goal is to continue to develop awareness and to develop partnerships so that we can positively impact our water.”
Dirty water does more than just look bad, she said. When phosphorous grows, it impacts the amount of rotting algae in the water. Algae blooms can create a foul smell that can decrease property values, negatively impact tourism and even cause problems at power plants through clogged pipes, increasing the end users’ utility bills.
The algae problem was much worse years ago, Tooley said.
“Several years ago, the algae was so thick you could almost walk on top of it,” he said. “Because of the work of the students, we understand that it’s not just one thing, but a complex combination of things that cause those algae blooms. It’s not just the lake pollution or sunlight or the depth of the water, but a combination of all of those things that effects water quality.”
Having the students do the research also helps bring the university closer to the community, he said.
“I have a neighbor who is retired and every fall and spring he looks forward to the students going through his yard to sample the water,” Tooley said. “It brings the university closer to the land owners in the area. It helps us to see that they’re not just doing text book study, but that they are doing things that will have a real impact on our area.”
While students are only in their first and second years, Abler said, much of their work border on graduate level research. And their findings can have lasting impact on policies for years to come, she said.
The Lakeshore Water Summit will focus on emerging trends in Manitowoc County Stream Quality for 2018. The event begins at 6 p.m. with a social period, followed by student presentations beginning at 6:30 p.m. Students and their professors will be on hand following the presentations to answer questions. Attendees will also have an opportunity to become members of the Lakeshore Water Institute at the event.
For more information, contact Rebecca Abler at Rebecca.ab,firstname.lastname@example.org, or Jenn Hansmann with the LNRP at email@example.com.
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– Photos by Dan Moore, Marketing and University Communication
– Story by freelance writer Liz Carey