Belgrade Lakes project
Between volunteering through Colby Cares About Kids (CCAK) and taking advantage of the close proximity to Sugarloaf Mountain, Colby students have found many ways to become involved in the local Maine community. They have also been able to use nearby resources as a tool to learn while helping Maine secure a healthy future, especially the future environmental protection of the nearby Belgrade Lakes.
The 2010-2011 academic year is the first full year that Colby faculty and students are collaborating in efforts “to understand how the entire ecosystem [of the Belgrade Lakes] is coupled together from a chemical, biological, societal, and economic basis,” Professor of Chemistry Whitney King said.
King is the coordinator of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) at the College. EPSCoR, established by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is a program for states that have historically received smaller amounts of research and development funding.
EPSCoR provides these states with funds to help develop partnerships between higher education institutions, industries and governments. These partnerships, according the Government of Maine website, are “designed to stimulate local action that will result in lasting improvements to the state’s academic research infrastructure and increased national research and development competitiveness.”
Most recently, the state of Maine received a $20 million EPSCoR fund to investigate environmental sustainability. This year, the College is utilizing the $100,000 EPSCoR grant it received from Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative to work with Belgrade Lakes and to look at the impact of housing developments in the area and how they affect the water quality of the lakes.
For students at the College, the most exciting aspect of this project is the opportunity to become actively involved in research to improve water quality in Maine. The College has developed a good relationship with the Department of Environmental Protection in Maine, allowing all the data students acquire is submitted to towns, lake associations and the Department.
Students and faculty from the biology, chemistry, geology, environmental studies and science, technology and society departments are combining their scientific research and land use patterns research in this project.
For example, one group of students is looking at the water chemistry and phosphorous concentrations. Another group is looking at land use patterns using GIS and aerial photography. They are also developing a model for predicting what the phosphorous levels would be based on certain patterns, and using the models to make recommendations to the lake associations and other partners.
Sophie Sarkar ’11, an environmental policy and economics double major, is taking a different approach to understand the impact and is writing her senior thesis, with Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus, on stakeholder engagement in the Belgrade Lakes.
“We are looking into the determinants of positive conservation behavior among residents living near individual lakes in the region,” said Sarkar. “My thesis will focus on the knowledge and economic variables to determine how and why people value the lakes on which they live, including their willingness to pay for improved lake water quality,” she said.
Faculty at the College are excited that the EPSCoR grant increased momentum for the project. Professor of Biology Russell Cole, who has been working in the Belgrade Lakes for the past 25 years, said he can now take the background and “expand the number of faculty working together to look at the bigger impact.”
“The College has been supportive, engaged, and helpful,” Cole said. “It is really exciting solving this common problem in an interdisciplinary way.”
The major challenge to the water quality of the Belgrade Lakes is that with more development on the shorelines, more soil is disturbed and eroded and then carries phosphorous into the lakes. With higher levels of phosphorous, it is more likely that algae will grow and impact the lake in a negative way.
Development, phosphorous levels and algal growth, however, are not the only things that are interconnected in this project. All seven of the Belgrade Lakes are interconnected, “so there are really unique water movements and dynamics where one water quality might affect the others,” said Cole.
Cole explained that there are two ways to stop the movement of soil particles to reduce the phosphorous concentration in the lake. One is to improve camp roads and their designs so water is absorbed into the habitat instead of running into the lakes, and the other is to encourage homeowners to build buffer strips of vegetation along the shore line that would absorb the water from going into the lakes and therefore would prevent erosion.
However, when there are hundreds of homeowners living on the lakes, it is difficult for individuals to see their own impact on the lakes and want to modify their behaviors.
The fundamental key to modify homeowners’ behavior is education about the issue, but “how do we connect what we’re doing to the individual homeowner that needs to make a behavior modification, which can cost them a lot of money?” Cole said.
One part of the solution is the Maine Lakes Resource Center. The citizens in the Belgrade Lakes region partnered with Colby College, Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance and the Belgrade Lakes Association to raise 2.5 million dollars to buy the property where the resource center will be built. It should be finished by June.
“If you want to change people’s attitudes, you have to give them tools,” King said. “[The Center] emphasizes the how-to part of living on the lake,” he said. For example, if someone needs to update a septic tank, the resource center will be a place to go to receive designs and the best management practices so that the homeowner can adapt his or her lifestyle for living on the lake and helping to maintain it.