With the changing climate and more big rain events in the area, wild rice beds in northern Wisconsin are threatened.
Some University of Wisconsin-Stout LAKES REU students this summer looked at the impact restoring wild rice to the region would have on phosphorus levels.
Eight college students from around the U.S. took part in LAKES, a summer research experience for undergraduate students. The eight-week program ended Aug. 12. They shared their research with the public in early August in Menomonie and Chetek.
Students studied issues related to cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, in the Red Cedar watershed and how the compromised water quality affects the region. The watershed includes Lake Menomin, Tainter Lake and the Chetek chain of lakes.
“Wild rice has had a hard time with the big rain events,” said Arthur Kneeland, UW-Stout senior biology lecturer. “It’s also important for the region. It’s a very culturally significant plant. We can choose to do something or do nothing.”
Wild rice is a staple food in Ojibwe communities across the Upper Midwest that is also used in traditional ceremonies. Lake Menomin occupies what seems to have once been a wild rice marsh, which was flooded by the mid-19th century damning of the Red Cedar River to create a millpond or log reservoir. Menomin has been translated as “the place where the wild rice grows,” according to the book “Where the Wild Rice Grows: A Sesquicentennial Portrait of Menomonie” published in 1996.
Students researched whether growing wild rice would impact phosphorus levels in the lakes and reduce algae growth. Wild rice could slow water runoff and prevent sediment from flushing further into waterways, Kneeland said.
It also has an economic viability if beds could be started in Lake Menomin. “We could make money off it,” he said. “It sells for around $10 a pound.”
Kristen Ondris, a senior studying civil engineering at the Cooper Union, New York City, said originally the plan was to study individual wild rice plants over the summer. The research then changed to studying existing beds in the region.
Lake Menomin has no wild rice beds. The study shows there tends to be more phosphorus in the sediment of wild rice beds.
The next step would be to study why this happened, if it was because of wild rice plants dying in the area or the plants trapping sediment from the water column.
Ondris said she liked the interdisciplinary study approach at LAKES. “It was really interesting to study something that was applicable to here,” she noted.
Naomi Albert, a senior UW-Stevens Point natural resource planning major, said further study is also needed looking at the phosphorus levels of wild rice beds throughout the entire growing season. The plants may well be absorbing phosphorus from the sediment and water that has settled in the beds. “Having aquatic plants like wild rice may help with seasonal phosphorus issues,” she said.
Zayyan Swaby, a senior at Stony Brook University, New York, studying biogeochemistry presented research on creating a smartphone app or website called Menomi.net that would allow people to check water quality in the area from small reading stations.
The research also looked at whether the stations could be powered using sediment to generate energy. “I believe the information is important because it’s just a constant reminder for everybody of the lakes and to get the community involved,” Swaby said.
LAKES was reapproved last year for another three years by the National Science Foundation, receiving a $303,000 grant. The first LAKES grant cycle ran from 2014 to 2016.
LAKES REU stands for Linking Applied Knowledge in Environmental Stability Research Experience for Undergraduates.
LAKES students have produced research projects on social, economic, ecological, cultural and spatial issues related to the toxic blooms, which are caused by excessive phosphorous in the waterways.
Along with the student research, LAKES is collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which has $500,000 in funding for a related watershed project called the Red Cedar River Water Quality Partnership.
LAKES also collaborates with other area entities and agencies, including the Tainter/Menomin Lake Improvement Association, Dunn County, Barron County, City of Menomonie, Red Cedar Lakes Association, Chetek Lakes Protection Association and the Big Chetac and Birch Lakes Association.
The watershed includes about 40,000 acres of open water and 4,900 miles of waterways.
UW-Stout senior biology lecturer Arthur Kneeland talks with LAKES REU students about a rain garden on Lake Menomin./UW-Stout photo Chris Ferguson
LAKES REU student Naomi Albert with her poster on research she did on wild rice./UW-Stout photo Pam Powers
LAKES students share their research at the Raw Deal in Menomonie./UW-Stout photo Pam Powers