Coordinating Collective Action: Why Lake Organizations are Like Cookouts

Written by Dane Whittaker

Don’t you wish increasing volunteer involvement was as easy as throwing a good cookout? We know it’s not. Here we provide eight suggestions that may help you overcome the challenge of free-riding.

Wisconsin’s waters belong to its people. Thanks to the Public Trust Doctrine established in the early 1800s, keeping our lakes healthy is our shared responsibility. As lake stewards, you know that warming water temperatures, fluctuating water levels, new forms of recreation, and COVID-19 are all changing the ways lakes are used. Lakes are a place to swim, fish, find inspiration, and they are home for wildlife. Maintaining lakes is a goal we must work together to achieve, but often, the burden is shared by a committed few. Local, regional, and state organizations in the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership contribute to a common good in keeping our lakes healthy. But with so many social and ecological challenges on our hands, including a global pandemic, it isn’t easy.

Sustaining our lakes requires collective action. Collective action is when two or more people work together, and sometimes compromise, to provide a public good. If your neighborhood is having a cookout, self-interest would say not to take anything and eat what your neighbors bring. However, it is rare for people to show up at a cookout empty-handed. The neighborhood cookout is an example of successful collective action that results in full bellies and sometimes too many brownies. Caring for Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes could be left to a small number of individuals, but you’d likely go home hungry. With regional and state partners, lake organizations facilitate collective action and coordinate efforts so that there aren’t ten plates of brownies (i.e., guest speakers) and no potato salad (i.e., lake management plan). A balanced mix of dishes is the key to a good cookout.

When coordinating collective action, lake organizations face several challenges. These challenges, broadly described as ‘free-riding’, include low volunteer participation, homeowners opting out of membership, or visitors heavily using the lake—challenges every lake organization is familiar with on some level.

In 1973, political economist Elinor Ostrom founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. She received the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her comparison of cases where common pool resources, like lakes and irrigation networks, were sustainably managed over time through collective action. Ostrom and her colleagues found that many of these resource-based organizations had eight traits in common.

We conducted a study of Vilas County lake organizations in 2019 to translate the eight characteristics that Ostrom found for lake organizations locally. You can read the full study, Conditions for success in natural resource management by volunteer-based organizations: A study of lake management organizations in Vilas County, Wisconsin, USA, here. Here, we describe these eight traits in the context of Wisconsin lake organizations:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries take into account two distinct attributes. First, the boundaries of the resource must be clear; this is inherent for lakes. Second, who can use the lake must be clear. In Wisconsin, lakes are held in Public Trust for the use and benefit of its people. All of the organizations we talked to had clearly defined boundaries.
  2. The rules fit the lake. Lake organizations provide feedback to rule-making and enforcement groups, like town boards or the Department of Natural Resources, about allowed recreational equipment, activities, and lake use hours. Lake organizations help ensure the rules match the lake’s size, type, and ecological needs. For example, Nichols lake, which is small and shallow, only allows electric motors.
  3. Lake users participate in setting rules. Because people who interact with a lake regularly have a good sense of the local conditions and needs, they can help design rules and lake programs that fit local conditions. Many lake organization members may be unable to vote in local elections, but they are able to have their voice heard through the lake organization. Lake organizations have an inclusive planning and voting process, and often influence local planning decisions. A common question that arises is should visitors and non-residents be able to participate in lake organizations?
  4. Monitoring the lake and its use to detect harmful changes that need to be addressed. Monitoring can be formalized through programs like Clean Boats Clean Waters or the Citizen Lake Monitoring Network. It can also be informal. A kayaker might notice a new plant growing in the lake and report it to a local aquatic invasive species specialist for identification and, if confirmed, rapid response management.
  5. Graduated sanctions by other lake users. Sanctioning is when a rule-breaker is punished. Graduated sanctions say that the punishment’s severity is based on the seriousness of the rule broken and whether the person has broken the rule before. For example, someone sitting on their dock might yell, “Hey, slow down!” to a boat that speeds through a no-wake zone, and then call the sheriff if the person speeds by repeatedly. Graduated sanctions give the rule-breaker the benefit of the doubt, and a chance to learn the rules.
  6. Simple, low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms. Is there an easy way for lake users to resolve disputes? This could be as simple as a discussion at a lake organization meeting. But, suppose the case is more complex, like a water level dispute between two lakes that share a dam. In that case, the lake organizations might invite a DNR scientist to provide information to help them settle the dispute. Establishing a clear path for conflict resolution is vital.
  7. Rights to organize. In some places, this is a challenge. For lake organizations in Wisconsin, state law gives people the right to organize. What may present a more significant challenge is gaining permission from town governments or state agencies to take specific actions. Working through these grant and permit processes ensures appropriate efforts go into managing lakes and that resources go to the lakes that need it the most. We all have some skin in the game – after all, Wisconsin lakes are for everyone.
  8. Organizations work together at different scales. The Wisconsin Lakes Partnership brings scientists, educators, and citizens together to care for our lakes. Under the partnership, local, county, and state organizations work together and share information to benefit the lakes and the people and wildlife that use them.

Sustaining a lake organization is challenging. While we found that most organizations are using the principles above, we did find that successful implementation of #4-6 and 8—monitoring, graduated sanctioning, conflict resolution, and partnering with local organizations—set some organizations apart in working through challenges. We hope that considering these characteristics will help new lake organizations get started and inspire existing organizations to try something new.

As Elinor Ostrom was fond of saying, these characteristics are not a panacea. All eight principles may not fit your organization. You know your lake best; take these as inspiration to improve its sustainability. Our lakes face many challenges, but we have the opportunity to take action together to keep them healthy for future generations.

Who’s hungry for a brownie?


Dane is a PhD student at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University

Ten Great Things to Know About Your Favorite Lake

Written by Ted J. Rulseh
When you look out on your favorite lake, what do you see? Beautiful blue water? A place for a refreshing dip on a summer day? A surface on which to paddle a canoe or kayak? Favored spots to catch fish for sport or dinner? Your lake is all this, but also much more. A lake is a fascinating living system, full of mysteries and things to discover, if you look closely. Here are ten things you may not know about the world beneath the waves.
  1. It all starts with the sun. That’s right. The walleye you fry up for supper owes its existence, first and foremost, to the sun. It’s sunlight that enables plants and algae in the lake to manufacture food through photosynthesis. The food these primary producers make forms the base of the lake’s food chain.
  2. Your lake’s water is a thin soup. The water is the broth; the meat and vegetables consist of tiny organisms called plankton. The vegetables are the cells of algae that float freely in the water; they’re called phytoplankton. The meat is made up of small creatures, called zooplankton, that swim through the water, feeding as they go. They feed on the algae and in turn become food for fish in the very early stages of their lives.
  3. Your lake has ‘fleas.’ Tiny creatures called Daphnia, crustaceans from the same family as crayfish and shrimp, float in the thin soup. They’re often called water fleas because their herky-jerky swimming patterns remind observers of the jumping of fleas (those you hope never infest your dog). Daphnia are an essential food source for baby fish (called fry), water insects and the immature forms of frogs and toads. You don’t need a microscope to see them – they’re about a millimeter long. So if you scooped up a jar of lake water and looked through it, you’d probably see a Daphnia or two kicking about.
  4. Your lake has layers. The water is not a pool with a uniform temperature, at least not in the warm months of the year. As spring turns to summer, the lake separates into layers. Cold water lies at the bottom. Warmer water, being less dense, floats on top. The zone where warm water meets cold is called the thermocline. You can experience the thermocline by swimming out into fairly deep water, then doing a feet-first surface dive. When your feet reach a depth of about 12 to 15 feet, you will feel a sudden change from warm to cool. You’ve penetrated the thermocline.
  5. There’s only “one water.” There are lakes, rivers, and the vast resource known as groundwater. These are not really separate entities. They are all part of the same system. The top of the groundwater is called the water table. In an important sense, a lake is a depression in the land that intersects and exposes the water table.
  6. Your lake has a “skin.” You’ve seen the rounded shape of water droplets on a lakeside leaf. What gives that droplet its shape is something called surface tension – it’s as if the water had a very thin, invisible skin. That’s why the insects called water striders can skim across your lake’s surface on their long, spindly legs: The surface tension keeps them from sinking.
  7. Water has a unique behavior. Most liquids, as they cool, become progressively denser. Water is different. It becomes denser until it reaches 39 degrees F. Below that temperature it becomes less dense, until finally it becomes ice, only about 90 percent as dense as water (this is why ice floats). That’s important, because imagine what would happen if ice were denser than water and would sink. Through the winter, ice forming on the lake’s surface would drop to the bottom, and eventually the entire bowl of the lake would be frozen solid. It might never thaw; almost everything in it would be dead.
  8. Making ice is hard work. Your lake can take a long time to freeze, even with a number of cold and wintry days and nights. Because of a property of water called the heat of fusion, it is eighty times harder to freeze a given volume of water than to lower its temperature by one Celsius degree. Put another way, a drop of water has to give as much energy to freeze as it would give up to lower its temperature by 80 Celsius degrees.
  9. Your lake breathes. Dissolved oxygen in your lake is the single most important component of water quality, because without adequate oxygen, next to nothing could live. Your lake breathes by taking in oxygen from the air (with help from the stirring action of waves) and as a product of photosynthesis, the process by which algae and plants use sunlight to create food. The air we breathe contains about 20 percent oxygen. By comparison, the amount in lake water is tiny. A healthy lake contains 6 to 8 parts per million of oxygen – or 0.0006 to 0.0008 percent. Yet, that’s enough to enable fish to breathe, because of the miraculous structures they have called gills.
  10. Your lake is aging. All lakes go through a long, slow process of getting older and filling in. Every year, silt enters the lake with runoff from rainfall. Water plants grow and die, and their remains sink to the bottom. Gradually the lake takes on more nutrients, and more plants grow and die. It’s called eutrophication. We can all help slow this process down by keeping nutrients out of the lake. We do this by forgoing the use of fertilizers on our lakefront lots, keeping our septic systems maintained and in good repair, and limiting runoff into the water by keeping land near the water’s edge in a natural condition.
The closer you look at your lake, the more you’ll discover, and the more you will treasure and want to protect that natural wonder.


Ted J. Rulseh writes the newspaper column, “The Lake Where You Live.” An advocate for lake improvement and protection, he lives in the lake-rich region of northern Wisconsin. This article is adapted and excerpted from his book, A Lakeside Companion. It is printed by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2018 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.