A Cultural Ecology of Riparian Systems on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation: Understanding Stream Incision, Riparian Function and Indigenous Knowledge to Increase Best Management Plan Adoption

EPA Grant Number: FP917311
Title: A Cultural Ecology of Riparian Systems on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation: Understanding Stream Incision, Riparian Function and Indigenous Knowledge to Increase Best Management Plan Adoption
Investigators: Mehl, Heidi E
Institution: Kansas State University
EPA Project Officer: Zambrana, Jose
Project Period: August 1, 2011 through July 31, 2014
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2011) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Tribes and American Indian/Alaska Native/Pacific Islander Communities


Widespread adoption of best management practices (BMP) is often difficult to achieve, especially in the face of poorly understood traditions and cultural attachments. This study will investigate stream incision and riparian function on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation (PBPN), and assess indigenous knowledge of riparian and stream ecosystem services with respect to water supply and quality. The fundamental goal of this research is to combine advanced understandings of riparian hydrology and water quality function in the Great Plains with a sound understanding of indigenous nature-society value systems to design a successful water quality BMP outreach program.


This research will use stream gages, shallow groundwater wells and piezometers to investigate the effect of stream incision on riparian water tables, and the effectiveness of Great Plains riparian forests to remove sediment, nutrients and bacteria from overland and subsurface flow. Channel incision is a well-documented problem on the streams flowing through the PBPN. The lowered elevation of incised stream channels is likely producing a net lowering of the riparian water table, potentially reducing baseflows and limiting riparian forest growth and/or restoration. There also is evidence that lowered water tables impair the ability of riparian areas to filter nutrients. These data will be complemented by interviews and surveys conducted with tribal officials, elders and community members of the PBPN, designed to understand traditional river and riparian knowledge and cultural beliefs and practices related to management of streams and riparian areas. Combined, this information will lay the framework for a water quality BMP outreach program that integrates scientific data with specific local knowledge and traditions to increase the chances of program adoption.

Expected Results:

An increased understanding of riparian hydrology and water quality dynamics will contribute to the literature on riparian buffers and their ability to mitigate pollution, as well as inform the PBPN of water and water quality dynamics on their lands. The enhanced cultural understanding of human-riparian interactions and perceptions will enhance greatly the ability of state and federal regulators to work with the PBPN and other indigenous nations to improve water quality. The potential positive impacts could extend well beyond the PBPN reservation boundaries to other tribes and communities in the Midwest facing similar issues, and even to similar international efforts. At a minimum, this research will inform land management practices and BMP adoption from a cultural standpoint and help bridge the gap between science and adoption of BMPs, resulting in an overall improvement of water quality on the PBPN.

Potential to Further Environmental/ Human Health Protection

The ability of riparian areas to filter pollutants like nutrients and sediment is well-documented; however, understanding of the effect of channel incision on this function is lacking. There also are very few studies documenting the ability of riparian areas to filter bacteria and pathogens from overland runoff. The information gained from this study will inform land managers and engineers to the effectiveness of riparian areas to improve in-stream water quality. Using this information to design a successful BMP outreach program will result in improved water quality on the PBPN and downstream, which will greatly benefit ecological communities and the health of the PBPN who hunt, fish and swim in local streams.

Supplemental Keywords:

riparian, channel incision, water table, nutrients, sediment, bacteria, pathogens, indigenous, Prairie Band Potawatomi, best management practices, BMP, water pollution, traditional knowledge, community-participatory methods

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2012
  • 2013
  • Final