Nelson Institute students offer action plan for Lake Altoona

Located at the nexus of the Eau Claire River watershed, Lake Altoona is a destination attraction for swimming, boating, and fishing. But in 2023, there were 71 days when bacteria or algae affected the beach.  

A group of Nelson Institute students in an accelerated project-based master’s program aims to change that by implementing environmental conservation strategies they recommended after holistically studying Lake Altoona.

“The process involves looking at all of the contributing factors that impact the water quality,” said Shannon Roznoski, who is in the Environmental Conservation MS program. “We mapped out all the threats, which do include nutrient runoff, sedimentation, bacteria levels, harmful bacteria that comes from various sources and does lead to algae blooms.”  

The students were connected to Eau Claire County through UniverCity Alliance, which is a network of interdisciplinary leaders dedicated to fostering innovation in Wisconsin communities of all sizes. Eau Claire County is partnering with UniverCity through 2025 and connecting with university resources to address challenges like recurring algae blooms in Lake Altoona that can be harmful to human and animal health. 

Additionally, the students worked in collaboration with representatives of the Eau Claire River Watershed Coalition (ECRWC) to create a conservation action plan for Lake Altoona. 

Matt Steinbach, the environmental sciences division manager at the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said the students were “very eager to learn about the situation and provide practical solutions for Eau Claire County to implement.”  

“This partnership provided a unique opportunity for the county to prioritize this project and for the students to gain collaborative experience working on a complex problem,” Steinbach said.    

While environmental issues can be “spoken of on a grand, existential level,” Program Coordinator Meghan Kautzer said the opportunity to work with Eau Claire County focused the students’ work.   

“By working with Eau Claire County, students are steeped in the importance and direct impact of focusing on the local, community level,” Kautzer said.  

The Environmental Conservation program, which includes a total of 22 students who will complete the program in August, fits well with UniverCity’s model of pairing a community-based project with coursework because it “embraces putting science to action,” Kautzer said. 

“Conservationists must be equipped to effectively, positively work with people that are impacted by environmental challenges,” Kautzer said. “Classroom training can only go so far to introduce the complexities (and joys) of working with people. An immersive experience with a community-based project allows students to see conservation science come to life, to face the realities the community faces, and work together to problem-solve.”   

After working with 35 communities on over 300 projects, UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter can attest that community-based projects provide enhanced learning experiences that result in the students gaining a better understanding of what is taught in the classroom.  

“What makes the UniverCity model so impactful is that it prioritizes two-way learning,” Luter said. “Wisconsin communities are receiving helpful projects from students, and the university is learning from local knowledge in communities.”  

Lake Altoona is a conservation target because the Eau Claire River (shown here) Five Mile Creek, and numerous springs within the watershed flow into it, reflecting the overall health of the watershed. Photo credit: Megan Zabel Holmes/Visit Eau Claire.

Recommended strategies 

Lake Altoona is a conservation target for the community because the Eau Claire River, Five Mile Creek, and numerous springs within the watershed flow into it, reflecting the overall health of the watershed. It’s also the lowest point in the watershed and receives nutrients and sediment that has accumulated throughout the Eau Claire River’s tributaries. 

Ultimately, the students recommended implementing a sustainable landscaping awareness campaign and hiring an Eau Claire watershed coordinator. They hope that these primary strategies will reduce the number of days when beaches are closed and the amount of sedimentation that builds up in the lake. 

The focus of the sustainable landscaping awareness campaign is to mobilize lakeshore property to implement best practices for reducing runoff into the lake. It would include developing educational materials, promoting and conducting one or more two-hour workshops, and monitoring the implementation of sustainable landscaping practices before and after the campaign.  

“There’s a community that is very concerned about the health of the lake, and one of the things that was desired was to get them more involved with actually taking care of the lake,” Environmental Conservation MS student Ian Henery said. “Our strategy is essentially an outreach mission to inform them of the more sustainable landscaping practices.” 

These practices, which can include reducing fertilizer use and incorporating diverse vegetation, would reduce the stress of increased sedimentation and harmful algae on Lake Altoona.  

Hiring an Eau Claire watershed coordinator, the second strategy, was previously identified as a need by the Eau Claire River Watershed Coalition but has not been implemented. There’s currently no staff dedicated to coordinating activities, communication, and priorities across the watershed. 

“The watershed spans across five counties besides Eau Claire. We’re essentially mobilizing a lot of the different actors within the area, especially agriculture because they’re the largest contributor to sediment and nutrients,” Henerty said. “The idea is to have someone that can be almost like a spokesperson for the entire watershed and a facilitator.”  

As the group was developing recommendations, Roznoski said they kept in mind all the work conducted by community groups over the years and considered where they could “add value.” She highlighted justifications for how a coordinator can benefit the watershed and researching objective measurement techniques that community-based organizations can implement as examples. 

Steinbach said the group’s recommendations, which ranged in cost, were well received by the local partners.  

“It was obvious that the group heard the feedback provided throughout the process,” he said. “I expect these recommendations to be a big part of planning efforts for the watershed coalition and Eau Claire County in future years.”  

‘Brighter environmental future’ 

For Roznoski and Henery, the Environmental Conservation program has provided a path forward into new careers.   

Roznoski is transitioning into conservation from a career in information technology for 24 years. After volunteering in state natural areas about six years ago, she realized her passion for restoration work and conservation. She said having the opportunity to work with professionals in county health and land conservation through this project was very beneficial.  

“I learned a lot about how county-level government is structured,” Roznoski said. “Getting more insight and a better sense of how these different organizations work together gave me a nice introduction into some of these areas that I don’t have a lot of experience with.”   

Henery, who previously worked for Trek Bicycle, said he found the Environmental Conservation program online, “took a chance,” and moved to Wisconsin. Having grown up in Florida, Henery developed an interest in freshwater ecosystem conservation and is planning to combine that with working for an environmental protection group. 

Though Henery would like to work on a federal or state government level, the experience of partnering with Eau Claire County was “very necessary for my understanding of what I want to do in my career.”  

“It was just a fantastic representation of what’s necessary in order to mobilize people and ideas towards a goal,” Henery said.  

Kautzer said the variety of student backgrounds contribute to addressing challenges that face the conservation field. 

“Scientific inquiry is meant to build knowledge. We need diversity in perspective, experience and passion to creatively bring this knowledge to life,” Kautzer said. “As an interdisciplinary institute, we believe every individual has a role in contributing their unique talents and abilities, to overcome these obstacles for a brighter environmental future.” 

—Abigail Becker  

This story was originally published in The Commons, a publication of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Read the full March edition, and view the web version or previous editions from the “News” tab on the Nelson Institute website.