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Environment / Sustainability

Sustainable ecosystems, economies a balancing act

August 30, 2013

Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory professor Ed Hall is working to create sustainable solutions for residents surrounding Lake Yojoa in Honduras.

The largest and only natural lake in Honduras – Lake Yojoa -- formed 11,000 years ago as the result of a volcanic eruption. The lake is an environmental and natural resource life source for communities in the region, but in recent years Lake Yojoa has started to show signs of stress that is threatening the futures of thousands of residents.

Colorado State University scientist Ed Hall is working to understand the social-ecological relationships of the lake and to help communities create sustainable solutions that balance environmental and economic health.

Hall is a research scientist with the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources. He has been studying Lake Yojoa for seven years, and in 2013 received a Fulbright Fellowship to expand his research in Honduras.

Hall spent the first part of 2013 collected samples of Lake Yojoa and gathering information about the surrounding social-economical influences. He also collaborated with University of Zamorano in Honduras to teach students about the watershed of Lake Yojoa and encouraging them to think about solutions for better management.

Algae impacting ecosystem

Over the past 30 years, Lake Yojoa has been eutrifying, or turning green, due to an excess of algal growth driven by increased deposits of organic matter into the lake. The algae thrive on oxygen-rich waters, creating massive blooms that cripple oxygen levels and create dead zones where fish and other organisms cannot survive. This negatively impacts the ecosystem of the lake as well as fishing and tourism businesses in the region.

“This lake epitomizes the ‘Tragedy of the Commons,’ as it is a prime example of the complexity of managing a lake sustainably for multiple stakeholders as well as for its ecological health,” said Hall. “The goal of my study is to understand the causes of Lake Yojoa’s health decline and create a solution to achieve an ideal balance of sustainable environmental and economic health for the community with the help of the local residents and businesses.”

Lake Yojoa currently provides livelihoods for the local community, subsistence fisherman, industrial aquaculture farms, and a stretch of restaurants and tourism operations. While these businesses are vital sources of economic survival, they also contribute to the increased organic matter deposits in the lake.

The lake is home to commercial red tilapia farming producing nearly 170,000 pounds of fish per day on 8 hectares. Sixty-two lakeside restaurants produce 20 kilograms of solid waste per week, which is directly deposited into the lake along with the sewage waste from the local town due to limited infrastructure. And, heavy metals from the nearby mine infiltrate the food chain and end up in the lake as well.

No simple solution

Due to multiple influences and the complex social-ecological relationship presented, it is not easy to pinpoint a single source of the problem or a simple solution. Hall’s study focuses on synthesizing environmental data to untangle the multi-layered causes of eutrophication and compare that data with economic factors to create a balanced and targeted approach that will help restore the lake’s health and provide a more sustainable job market.

Using a detailed ecological data set of Lake Yojoa from 1979 to 1981, Hall and his team are able to compare the state of the lake as it was 30 years ago to the current situation. The researchers are collecting samples of sediment, water, and algae from the lake and testing levels of dissolved nitrogen, phosphorus, and water turbidity to determine the trophic state of the lake. They also test the nutrient content, metal content, sediments, temperature, oxygen, and conductivity of the water.

Hall and his team hope to expand their studies at Lake Yojoa to include E. coli levels and fecal coliform counts which will augment their already collected data of the local town’s sewage impacts. He hopes to obtain more legacy data to enable further comparative analyses of the lake’s chemical and ecological composition and is working toward producing a paper detailing his efforts.

“My wish is that this study can be used as a model to help developing countries with developing economies produce freshwater livelihoods sustainably, indefinitely,” said Hall.

Contact: Bryony Wardell
Phone: (970) 491-2542