University of Vermont

Research at The University of Vermont

4 Questions: The Lake Champlain Watershed


As Vermont's climate becomes warmer, wetter and more volatile, the need for research-based predictive tools to inform policy and land-use decisions in the state has never been greater. A $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation is helping Vermont develop just this innovative decision-making capability, placing it at the forefront of states focused on creating informed public policy in a changing world. Awarded in 2011, the five-year grant centers on the Lake Champlain Basin. It brings together Vermont higher education institutions, state agencies, non-profit groups and the private sector through Vermont EPSCoR, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, based at the University of Vermont.

The research has both natural and social science components. Interdisciplinary teams of natural scientists are gathering data on the chemical, physical, geological and biological processes in the lake. Social scientists are conducting extensive surveys of lake users, landowners in the basin, and public officials to gather data on external factors impacting the lake and to understand how decisions affecting lake health are made. Eventually, all the data will be integrated in an overarching modeling platform where decision-making scenarios can be tested. Professor Judith Van Houten, Ph.D., is directing the research program.

Q: You're about halfway through the grant. How are things going?

A: Very well. We spent a lot of effort putting high-tech buoys in the lake to gather data and that's going well — we've gathered data for two summers and three winters. The National Science Foundation just gave us a new $6.7 million grant to put even more sensors in the lake and surrounding watershed.

Q: How about the social science side of things?

A: We've also made good progress there. In year one, we had a mediated modeling workshop with people from across the state attending. The purpose was to gather concerns and issues that we would then use for our scenario testing. In May, in a second statewide meeting, we're going to narrow down the 100 or so management interventions that came up earlier to six or seven key ones that will inform our scenario testing.

Q: What is the scenario testing feature?

A: The scenario-testing feature of the project is one of its most valuable features. If we want to know the impact of wider roads, zoning mandating smaller lawns, pesticide control or new targets for total nutrient loading in agriculture, those data can be fed into the model, and their outcome can be determined in advance of any action. That sort of advanced capability will not be available anywhere but in Vermont. It is very exportable, and NSF is very interested in that.

Q: You're using a complex systems approach for this research. Why?

A: The research is designed to take into account the many factors that affect the lake, such as the land use, streams and rivers of its watershed and the dynamics of the lake itself. Ultimately, these many factors contribute to algal bloom, changes in invasive species, and other changes in the lake. We want to bring a holistic view to the Lake Champlain Basin, the lake and its watersheds, and a complex systems approach -- where we can model outcomes when many variables interact with one another -- is tailor-made for that approach. To give you a sense of how sophisticated the platform is, we'll have a hydrologic model that looks at the watershed, a lake model, an agent-based model that looks at users and decision-makers, and a localized climate model -- all of them integrated with one another.

Last modified May 19 2014 04:03 PM