A waterway surrounded by trees

GVSU sociologist helps natural resource management community partners collect key social science data for projects

As officials with the Ottawa Conservation District began developing a management plan for the Pigeon River watershed southwest of Allendale, they turned to a Grand Valley sociologist to help collect crucial data.

Amanda Buday, assistant professor of sociology, specializes in community-based efforts to protect natural resources. How she describes her role: Addressing the human dimensions of natural resource management.

And as Ottawa Conservation District officials work on finalizing a watershed plan to submit to the state — which they hope will open the door to funds for managing that area — they are relying on insight from the work Buday led to understand what residents know about the watershed, how they use it and what they know about potential threats.

Buday has worked extensively with West Michigan community organizations to understand people's relationships with natural resources. She also includes students on the research teams, giving them critical experience.

Amanda Buday places an envelope in a box. A student is seen in the background.
Students are a central part of the research teams Buday assembles to collect data for a number of natural resource management projects in West Michigan.

For instance, with Muskegon Lake, which has undergone longtime restoration efforts, Buday and her team worked to determine attitudes about public access to the lake. The goals in collecting that information included helping find ways to promote equitable access so that all residents benefit from the restored lake, and hopefully increase interest in being future stewards of its health as well, she said.

For the Pigeon River watershed, Buday coordinated sending out surveys to residents to collect social indicators data that augmented information included in the water management plan such as soil drainage, land use and water quality.

A key takeaway from the surveys: "There was a substantial gap between respondents' perceptions of what is a major threat to the watershed and what is the threat," Buday said. 

For example, Richard Rediske, professor of water resources at GVSU's Annis Water Resources Institute, found "alarming levels of E. coli in several sampling locations," Buday said. Rediske’s data identified human genetic markers at several sites, signaling that bacterial sources in the watershed are not limited to animal waste.

But when asked about pollutants affecting the watershed, residents ranked E. coli bacteria as one of the lowest, Buday said. She noted mass communication can affect people's awareness of water issues; problems caused by other water pollutants, such as fertilizers or invasive species, are often more prominently covered, while news about elevated E. coli levels tends to be associated with closing popular beaches.

Amanda Buday stands on a boardwalk near some water.
Amanda Buday stands next to a waterway that is at the end of the Pigeon River watershed. Lake Michigan is nearby.

"Aging home septic systems or diapers left in parking lots make less sensational headlines and are, therefore, largely off the public radar," Buday added.

Ben Jordan, watershed technician for the conservation district, said the level of E. coli was eye-opening for him and his colleagues, too. 

While water quality in the watershed has big-picture implications, he noted that for residents, there are personal, everyday implications of elevated E. coli as well as other water quality concerns.

"For some, this is the creek that runs through their backyard that they kayak, canoe, swim in and fish out of, and they didn't realize how high the levels are," Jordan said.

A wooden sign that says "Pigeon Lake Access Site" with vegetation in the foreground
Docks jut into algae-laden water.
Buday notes that what happens to inland water ultimately impacts the Great Lakes.

Manure runoff is one culprit, Jordan said, while failed septic systems also play a big role. He pointed out that the vast majority of homes and businesses throughout the rural watershed are not connected to municipal sewer systems, so they rely on septic systems.

Jordan said that working with Grand Valley is beneficial because of the expertise of individuals such as Buday as well as GVSU's respected name recognition accompanying requests for information.

"The main goal of the survey was to give us information from residents, but also to help drive outreach and education goals," Jordan said. 

Buday said they worked to help identify both messaging that resonates and trusted sources to disseminate that information.

Ultimately, Buday said, collecting social science data can have a profound impact on the environment.

"We're trying to better understand people's relationship to natural resources and the role they play in the environment," Buday said. "Understanding people's knowledge, values and actions on land use is critical for developing management strategies that will be effective."