A harmful phytoplankton bloom in Lake Mendota, Wisconsin, one of the Virginia Tech project team's study sitesA harmful phytoplankton bloom in Lake Mendota, Wisconsin, one of the Virginia Tech project team's study sites. Blooms such as these, which occur throughout most of the summer in Lake Mendota, severely degrade water quality.Photo courtesy of Virginia TechBLACKSBURG, Va., Dec. 8, 2015 – Understanding human interactions with the natural environment can enhance the protection of surface water quality in lakes and streams.

A multidisciplinary team of researchers will examine the linkages between humans and freshwater quality using a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program.

Kelly Cobourn, assistant professor of natural resource economics in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, is principal investigator on the project. Co-principal investigators Cayelan Carey, assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate, and Kevin Boyle, professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, together with Cobourn form the project leadership team.

The goal of the research project is to investigate human-natural feedbacks in freshwater systems by examining the linkages between land-use decision-making, water quality, and collective action taken by the public to protect water quality.

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The research team will study the effects that human activities in freshwater systems have on the degradation of lake water quality and how those land-use decisions by humans affect nutrient fluxes through lake ecosystems.

Project researchers will also study how changes in lake water quality in turn affect human behavior. Degradation of lake water quality affects humans by threatening the amenities that they value, such as drinking water, recreation, and fisheries.

“At its most basic level, this project is about interactions between humans and the environment,” Cobourn said. “We know that humans affect the environment, but you can’t really understand any complex system without also studying how the environment affects human behavior. This linkage from the environment back to humans is a key piece of the puzzle that allows us to better understand changes in many diverse types of human-natural systems.”

The scientists are investigating citizen-driven lake associations as a catalyst to effect changes in laws and regulations to protect and improve water quality. Lake water quality is a global issue that touches all socioeconomic levels and will continue to gain traction in citizen-driven lake associations as surrounding watershed areas deteriorate if not monitored closely.

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“We hope that at the end of the day our project will provide a better understanding of the interactions between humans and freshwater systems that can be used to protect valuable lakes,” Boyle said. “If our research could better support lake communities and policymakers as they work to protect and improve water quality, I think we would all consider that to be a success.”

Research results will ultimately lead to a coupled modeling framework that captures how land-use decision-making interacts with the crucial services freshwater provides. That framework will act as a guide for citizen-driven lake associations to advocate for laws and regulations that will allow for the environment surrounding lakes to be protected and ultimately the benefits gained by humans to be preserved.

“The team is a multidisciplinary group of research investigators from eight universities across the country,” Carey said. “We are fortunate to work with an incredible group of scientists that includes hydrologists, freshwater ecologists, economists, and social scientists.”

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Cobourn is a natural resource economist whose work focuses on water economics and policy with an emphasis on how farmers make water and land-use decisions. Carey, an expert in freshwater ecology, studies how land use and climate change alter water quality in freshwater lakes and reservoirs. Boyle is an environmental economist whose work looks at the impact of lake water quality on economic values.

“We need to draw on expertise from so many different disciplines to really understand, in a holistic way, what drives changes in freshwater systems,” Cobourn said.

Cobourn, Carey, and Boyle spent months discussing how their individual strengths and understanding of humans and freshwater systems could fit together in this project.

“Over time, we developed into a close-knit leadership team. It is exciting that we were able to generate ideas that extend far beyond the realm of our individual areas of expertise,” Cobourn said. “My work on land-use decision-making, Cayelan’s work on freshwater lakes, and Kevin’s work on the value of water quality form the foundation for the study.”

Other research team members include the following:

  • Christopher Duffy, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State University, who works in the field of water resources engineering and specializes in the area computational catchment modeling;
  • Paul Hanson, distinguished research professor at the University of Wisconsin Center for Limnology, who has expertise in lake metabolism and carbon cycling;
  • Armen Kemanian, associate professor of production systems and modeling at Penn State University, who specializes in modeling nutrient cycling in agriculture and natural systems;
  • Jennifer Klug, associate professor of biology at Fairfield University, who has expertise as an aquatic ecologist and specializes in the causes and consequences of algal blooms in collaboration with citizen scientists;
  • Lars Rudstam, director of Cornell Biological Field Station and professor of fisheries and aquatic science at Cornell University, who specializes in aquatic ecology;
  • Patricia Soranno, professor of landscape limnology at Michigan State University and co-director of the Landscape Limnology Research Group, who specializes in macrosystems ecology and limnology;
  • Michael Sorice, assistant professor of outdoor recreation and human dimensions in College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, who specializes in conservation social science;
  • Michael Vanni, professor of zoology at Miami University, who specializes in the ecology of lakes and their surrounding landscapes; and
  • Kathleen Weathers, senior scientist in the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and volunteer research director for Lake Sunapee Protective Association, who specializes in air-land-water interactions as well as citizen and team science.