Not all algae are created equal.
The good green stuff produces oxygen in healthy waters, while the harmful blue-green kind grows rapidly and can be toxic to humans and animals.
That second type is the subject of a new interdisciplinary research project underway at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Sustainable Institute for Regional Transformations (SIRT) in partnership with the Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance.
The project—funded by an Ignite grant for applied research made possible by a collaboration between the nonprofit WiSys and the UW System—is focused on understanding public perceptions of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Lake Winnebago and associated waterways.
Seven UWO faculty and staff members (Kevin Crawford, chemistry; Shannon Davis-Foust, biology and environmental Studies; Marcel Dijkstra, environmental engineering and technology; Jim Feldman, history and environmental studies; Heidi Nicholls, anthropology; Stephanie Spehar, anthropology and SIRT; and Bob Stelzer, biology) and four UWO students are collaborating on the project, which combines biological and social science data to develop a comprehensive picture of what the public thinks about HABs and why.
The Winnebago pool lakes, which include Lake Buttes des Mort, Lake Poygan, Lake Winnebago and Lake Winneconne, provide drinking water for more than 250,000 people in the cities of Appleton, Neenah and Oshkosh.
The blooms, primarily caused by excess nutrients from agricultural and urban runoff, threaten public health as well as the local economy and quality of life.
Korin Doering, Winnebago waterways program director with the Fox-Wolf Alliance, said tackling the problem requires a strong partnership approach.
“Understanding the mismatch between the risks and impacts of HABs and the public perception of these risks is critical for developing, implementing and communicating effective policy and outreach efforts,” Doering said.
Throughout the summer, UW Oshkosh students involved with the project—junior Trinaty Caldwell, senior Keara Halliday, junior Shawna Jackson and sophomore Rachael Luedtke—collected information from the public at boat launches, fishing locations and public beaches about their perceptions, attitudes and behaviors toward the HABs.
“There’s a real lack of understanding about the harmful algal blooms,” said Spehar, SIRT director and project lead. “We are talking to people along the shores and finding out how they engage with the lakes. We want to determine how well their perceptions of the blooms match the risk. Our goal is to use the information to form better policy and improve education to help address this serious problem.”
More in-depth interviews will follow with Nicholls, a cultural anthropologist and lead social scientist on the project.
In addition, Davis-Foust, field team leader, said water and bloom sampling is taking place weekly throughout the summer. “We sample for toxins in the water produced by blue-green algae. We bring the water back to the chemistry lab to evaluate its safety,” she explained.
The project also involves a more light-hearted social media component that encourages the community to document blooms they encounter by posting photos or video and tagging with the location and using hashtags like #UWOHABS and #WIHABS.
Halliday, a double major in biology and anthropology from Woodstock, Illinois, helped with the sampling, survey and social media work over the summer.
“This project is essentially a combination of both of my majors, which is why I enjoy it so much,” she said. “While being able to interact with people, I am learning how humans respond to their environment and how their responses can affect the environment.”
Collecting samples appealed to Halliday’s love of biology.
“Now, l am looking forward to being able to process each sample further in the lab,” she said. “In addition, algae is one of my favorite subjects within biology/ecology, and I love that I can learn more about algal blooms through an anthropological perspective. I am very grateful to have this amazing research opportunity and hope that we can provide useful suggestions regarding environmental policies in the future.”
Spehar shares Halliday’s enthusiasm for the project, which may expand if additional funding is secured, because it is just the kind of problem that SIRT was created to help solve.
“Interdisciplinary sustainability research is really hard to make happen, but we’re doing it,” she said.