UMaine lake monitoring project bolstered with NSF funding

The National Science Foundation has awarded a one-year, $100,000 grant for continuing a University of Maine citizen-science project aimed at protecting lake water quality in the state. The grant will help extend the project, which began in 2015 with funding from UMaine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, into 2018 and beyond.

Maine lakes are home to a diversity of fish and wildlife. They provide economic, social, recreational and aesthetic benefits to the people of Maine and millions of annual visitors. Maine’s lakes contribute approximately $4 billion to the state’s economy.

However, many lakes are experiencing declining water quality due to a variety of factors — chief among them, a process in which nutrients, such as phosphorus, stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life which usually results in the depletion of dissolved oxygen. This can affect the overall health of the ecosystem and diminish the economic benefits of recreational use, shorefront property values and, when a lake is used as a source of drinking water, lead to significantly higher treatment costs.

The initial interdisciplinary project focused on 24 Maine lakes in an effort to develop a lake Vulnerability Index through a blend of biophysical measurements and social science techniques. The index is meant to help predict which lakes are more susceptible to deterioration in water quality via chemical, physical and biological measurements, and identifying — through surveys and interviews — the underlying factors that encourage successful citizen science collaborations.

Using data from the first year of the project, the investigators were able to secure additional funding from the Mitchell Center as well as from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund for the second year of the project beginning in 2017.

Collaborators include Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program (VLMP) participants, homeowners, lake associations on lake stewardship activities and the DEP. The project is led by Aria Amirbahman, UMaine professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Firooza Pavri, director of the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, who is conducting the social science component of the project.

One of the most important benefits of the project’s interdisciplinary and social science approach is that the findings can help policymakers develop more sophisticated tools to address complex environmental problems driven by multiple factors.

When fully developed, the Vulnerability Index will provide scientists, regulators and concerned citizens a clear window into the complex interplay of factors that contribute to the health of Maine lakes.

Team Leader:
Aria Amirbahman, Civil and Environmental Engineering, UMaine

Team Members:
Stephen Norton, Earth and Climate Sciences, UMaine;
Firooza Pavri, Geography-Anthropology, USM

Linda Bacon, Lake Assessment Program, Maine Department of Environmental Protection
Scott Williams, Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program