Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2018VT92B

A mental models approach to understanding public knowledge of harmful algal blooms in Lake Champlain

Institute: Vermont
Year Established: 2018 Start Date: 2018-03-01 End Date: 2019-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $10,000 Total Non-Federal Funds: $19,430

Principal Investigators: Rachelle Gould, Diana Hackenburg

Abstract: Cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Champlain threaten public health and well-being, aquatic ecosystems, and Vermont’s economic prosperity (Carmichael and Boyer 2016, Russell et al. 2013, Voight et al. 2015). Though Vermonters have shown great concern for water quality (Scheinert et al. 2014), decades of efforts to reduce the phosphorus pollution feeding the blooms have not notably improved the situation, which may be exacerbated in the future by climate change (Zia et al. 2016, O’Neil et al. 2012). Ongoing disagreements about the sources of pollution, potential impacts, and possible solutions suggest differences in how stakeholders understand and respond to information about blooms (Hill 2012). Further, research has shown that for many environmental problems, information alone is unlikely to result in meaningful changes in attitudes and behavior (Adams et al. 2013), and may actually heighten polarization (Drummond and Fischhoff 2017). Still, major regulatory and watershed partnership networks in the Lake Champlain watershed plan on using public information as the dominant tool for modifying the behaviors that lead to phosphorus runoff (Koliba et al. 2014). Understanding how individuals perceive the bloom issue will offer insights on how they might respond to and act upon new information, and thus may prove helpful in designing multi-faceted education and communication initiatives and in building collaboration across stakeholders. While previous studies have examined public concerns (Bongen et al. 1992, Lake Champlain Basin Program 2001, Collier et al. 2016) and economic value (Decerega et al. 2016, Kuentzel and Dennis 1998) related to Lake Champlain, this study will provide a richer picture of how stakeholders perceive the complex socio-ecological systems governing cyanobacteria blooms. A modified mental models approach will be used to identify how different individuals in two groups — the community of St. Albans, Vermont and professionals with expertise in algal blooms — think about the Lake Champlain cyanobacteria bloom problem, place nonmaterial values in their models, and find and process new information. Mental models derived from interviews with technical professionals will be analyzed to first form a “typical” professionals’ model. Then, semi-structured interviews will be conducted with St. Albans residents to build individual models. These interviews will incorporate a photo exercise, modified prompts from a protocol to elicit nonmaterial values (Gould et al., 2015), and questions regarding information sources, value structure, and socio-demographic information. These models will be compared with the professionals’ model to identify misconceptions, beliefs, and knowledge gaps, and with each other to identify potential shared models of cognition based on stakeholder demographics. This grant will leverage funding at UVM supporting the work of Dr. Rachelle Gould research group, which focuses on nonmaterial values of complex socio-ecological systems. This data will be incorporated into an ongoing UVM study exploring the links between harmful algal blooms and human well-being. We also expect to produce at least one peer-reviewed article. Models resulting from this research will be shared with the technical professionals, as well as with others conducting cyanobacteria bloom-related outreach and education in Lake Champlain. Ultimately, this information could inform future outreach, education, and communication strategies related to addressing cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Champlain at the community and basinwide levels. It also will further the conversation about understanding and incorporating nonmaterial values into research, outreach, and communications.