Researchers ask: will there be enough water?

As part of a water supply study, Amber Legare ’15 carries samples of bedrock. Photo by Ronni Gordon.

Professor of Geology Alan Werner and senior Amber Legare have turned the Western Massachusetts town of Shutesbury’s need into real-world research that benefits both town and “gown.” It’s a rare triple-win situation.

As a member of Shutesbury’s Water Resource Committee and Board of Health, Werner believed the water supply for the town of 1,800 should be tested to determine if it can support planned development.

“Shutesbury does not have a municipal water supply. Instead, we all share a common bedrock aquifer,” Werner says. “We know little about our water resources in town. Are they robust enough to handle droughts and climate change?”

Backed by a College research grant, Werner decided to find out, and invited his advisee, geology major Amber Legare ’15, to get involved. As a paid intern, she went to Shutesbury three times a week throughout the summer, to test streams’ flow rate and quality and measure how water levels fluctuated.

The project also includes drilling wells at four sites to monitor how much water makes it through the soil to recharge the bedrock aquifer; that phase began in mid-August.

Werner spells out the win-win-win situation this way: “The town gets important research done at minimal cost, Amber gets to be involved in an important research project, and I am supported to pursue a fun and interesting sabbatical project.”

The summer’s nearly over, but the project will continue on several fronts. Legare will continue to do the work this fall and spring, and will use the results to write her senior thesis.

Continued monitoring of the wells will allow the research team to see how much water levels fluctuate. “If they change a small amount, we can feel good about our water supply,” Werner explains. “If, on the other hand, they show large fluctuations or steady declines, then we will need to either curtail water use or find a new source.” He says the Water Resources Committee will ultimately take over the monitoring, which will likely continue for the several decades.

Legare fell in love with geology her first year, after taking an oceanography course taught by Werner. As is the case with the current study, Legare feels that “it’s important to apply research so that it helps people in their everyday life and benefits the community as a whole.”

—By Ronni Gordon