Researchers are investigating phosphorus levels in the lakebed and nearby marshland, studying how phosphorus washes in from nearby hill slopes and how urban stormwater may be affecting the system


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Fernan Lake

Investigating Aggressive Algae

Idaho EPSCoR researchers study toxic algae bloom conditions at popular north Idaho lake

By Tara Roberts
Image Courtesy of idahoecosystems.org




Acre-for-acre, Fernan Lake is Idaho’s most popular place for recreational fishing. But high phosphorus levels in this Coeur d’Alene-area lake cause blooms of toxic blue-green algae that keep residents from enjoying the natural resource in their backyard.

University of Idaho and statewide researchers are studying Fernan Lake to understand what causes its algae problem, how the blooms affect local people, and how future changes of climate or urban growth could affect the lake.

The research is a first-year case study for Idaho’s newest grant from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR. The $20 million grant aims to help Idahoans make science-based decisions about natural resources and provide the nation with a better understanding of the complex relationship between people and the environment.

“EPSCoR is a state-based program, like a large seed grant, to build Idaho’s capacity to improve education, quality of life and economic prosperity through the discoveries that come from research,” said Rick Schumaker, assistant project director for Idaho EPSCoR.

Higher education institutions across Idaho are conducting research through the grant, focusing on three growing urban areas: Coeur d’Alene, Pocatello and Boise-Treasure Valley.

UI leads the Coeur d’Alene part of the project, and researchers began work at Fernan Lake in October 2013. Now, roughly 25 faculty, postdoctoral researchers and students from multiple disciplines are working with local stakeholders to study the lake’s algae problem, says project leader Mark Solomon, a research scientist at UI’s Idaho Water Resources Research Institute.

Researchers are investigating phosphorus levels in the lakebed and nearby marshland, studying how phosphorus washes in from nearby hill slopes and how urban stormwater may be affecting the system.

Social science researchers with the project have been interviewing local residents and property owners to understand how the algae blooms are affecting them – and how they could affect them in the future if the problem is not solved.

They feed the social and ecological data they collect into a modeling program, then output it into a Virtual Fernan model that anyone can access. The model allows users to alter the virtual watershed and see what changes could happen in the lake. An early version is available at the Managing Idaho's Landscapes for Ecosystem Services website.

“When it is completed, anyone who uses the visualization could virtually log 200 acres of hillside or add a 50-unit subdivision and see if it causes blue-green algae growth,” said project leader Mark Solomon, a research scientist at UI’s Idaho Water Resources Research Institute. “The model will allow the community to anticipate what urban growth and climate change means for phosphorus in the lake.”

Partnership with local stakeholders has been key to the Fernan Lake project, Solomon says. UI is working with the cities of Coeur d’Alene and Fernan Lake Village, Friends of Fernan, Eastside Highway District, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, local landowners and others to design and implement the project. The community has contributed more than $200,000 of in-kind and cash donations to the research.

“We are proving here that including stakeholders as an integral part of the scientific process can add up to more than the sum of its parts,” Solomon says. “As demonstrated by Fernan Lake, this type of partnership is valuable for all.”

The project also brought in local and regional teachers for a workshop to explore watershed principles at the lake.

“They can take that back to their classrooms to engage their students not only in understanding the basics of science, but also in understanding their local environment,” Solomon says.

When the Fernan Lake project is complete, researchers will expand to other locations in the Coeur d’Alene area. Jan Boll, UI’s lead for the EPSCoR grant supporting the work, said the project’s collaborative nature is key to its success.

“Integration is the byword: integration of researchers and stakeholders, integration across disciplines, and integration across institutions,” Boll says. “The project has the potential to fundamentally reshape how we conduct science, and how land-grant universities interact with the people it is our mission to serve.”