Immersion Key to Studying Water Resources

Thursday, February 9, 2012 - 09:58

Prakriti Kaini ’12 is planning a career in aquatic toxicology. It’s a topic that if kept in the classroom could be quite dry, which is why Kaini sought a course where she could immerse herself in field and lab work.

Last fall, Kaina, a biology major, carried out a chemical analysis of surface water in the Dean Brook drainage basin near Shutesbury. Wearing green rubber boots, she waded through the chilly water scooping samples into flasks, the first step toward understanding the quality of the water in Dean Brook.

The course Kaini participated in, Water Resource Evaluation, was offered by Alan Werner, professor of geology. Eight students including Kaini signed up to study the quality and quantity of water in and around Shutesbury, which is 25 miles north of South Hadley.

“Until I took this course, my knowledge of water resource evaluation was very limited.,” said Kaini. “During the semester, I was familiarized with techniques and challenges associated with each and every step of chemical analysis of surface water.”

Werner created the course in response to a request for help by Shutesbury town officials. Werner, who lives in Shutesbury and serves on its water resource committee, was approached to participate in a study on development possibilities for the town.

Since the town doesn’t have a municipal water supply, officials were interested in learning how much development it could sustain within its existing natural and well-water resources. The study focused on the water quality of homeowners’ wells, and on the volume and quality of water flowing through two streams adjacent the town.

Werner developed the course to give students the chance to experience firsthand the field and lab work needed to collect, evaluate, and present water resource data.

“There’s no better way for students to learn than to get into the field and do it,” he said. Once the course was underway, little time was spent in the classroom. “Mostly it was getting out, doing the work, and learning as we did it.”

Four students worked on the well-water study. They wrote and distributed a questionnaire for homeowners and, based on responses, selected about 60 wells for testing. Homeowners provided water samples, which were taken to Smith College’s geochemistry lab for analysis.

Two other groups of students took MHC testing instruments to Shutesbury’s streams. Using a water quality meter, water flow meter, and pressure transducer, they measured basic water quality variables and water volume.

“The fieldwork was very interesting,” said Linnea Manley ’12. “It required a lot of research and time but was fun and rewarding. Taking the course allowed me to understand what the rewards and challenges of collecting and using real data are like. And using the different equipment was a great bonus.”

These tests, said Werner, generated data that can be used to assess how much water flows through the town, how much of that water recharges the natural water supply, and its quality.

Finally, the students plotted their data on a map of Shutesbury’s watershed using equipment in MHC’s geo-processing lab.

“Once the students generated the data, we asked ‘How do we look at this information?’ ” he said. The spatial nature of the data – that it could be superimposed on a landscape – lent itself to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) plotting. Working with lab manager Eugenio Marcano, the students used GIS software to create maps and a report they presented to Shutesbury officials.

The reaction of the town to the students’ work was positive. “It was a well-organized and done study,” said Bill Elliott, chair of the Shutesbury Board of Health. “We learned a lot about the water quality of private wells which are the only source of drinking water for town residents.”

The data generated by the students suggested that more research was needed to understand what the potential surface water supplies are around Shutesbury, and how the town might use these.

Bethany Nagid ’12, who worked on the well project, gave the course the thumbs up.

“The research and fieldwork are definitely going to be key parts of the experiences that shape my abilities as a student and researcher,” she said. “I’d really enjoy pursuing either a career or further studies where I would be able to research some of the concepts, such as chemical flow through water systems, which I’ve been studying at Mount Holyoke.”

Werner plans to offer the course again in fall 2012, focusing on the water quality of rivers near Shutesbury.