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Ohio State Dives Deep into Water Issues

04 August 2014

Ohio State University

A river runs through the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences’ campus in Columbus, and it both serves and symbolizes the college’s focus on water, writes Kurt Knebusch.

"If we think about some of the most pressing questions in science and society, today and in the future, a lot of them revolve directly around water," said Mazeika Sullivan, clad in hip boots, as he led a tour in April of the college’s Wilma H. Schiermeier Olentangy River Wetland Research Park.

"The growing global population, public health and access to drinking water, irrigation for food production, preserving biodiversity, climate change dynamics — they all come back to water," said the assistant professor of aquatic and riparian ecosystem ecology.

The 52-acre Schiermeier, home to teaching and research on wetlands and their crucial functions — they’re not called nature’s kidneys for nothing — is just one example of the many resources the college is bringing to bear on water.

"There’s a tremendous host of professionals in the college coming at water quality from multiple angles — from a social science perspective, from an economic perspective, from a food production perspective, and from ecological and conservation perspectives," said Dr Sullivan.

The result, he said, is that the college has the collective expertise needed "to be answering questions that are important to science and society in very impactful ways."

Soil scientist Libby Dayton is one of those professionals. She leads the On- Field Ohio project, which aims to revise the state’s Phosphorus Risk Index. Farmers throughout the state use the index to predict and reduce the risk of phosphorus runoff from their farms. The nutrient is tied to algal blooms in western Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Marys and other bodies of water.

Rafiq Islam, soil, water and bioenergy resources program leader at the college’s Ohio State University South Centers, is another. He’s part of a team studying, demonstrating and sharing the how-to’s of "ECO-farming." The new system employs no-till, cover crops and other sustainable practices to boost a farm’s production and profits while shrinking its environmental footprint, including its phosphorus runoff.

Kris Jaeger, assistant professor of stream geomorphology, is a third. She’s part of a ramped-up core of faculty whose work targets water.

"In Ohio, we have access to a variety of different landscapes so we can keenly look at the mechanisms of water quality," she said as she stopped along the Olentangy River as one of the hosts of the tour.

"We’ve got a broad suite of scientists who work well interdisciplinarily," she said above the sound of the river tumbling over rocks. "We also have some good data sets on water quality monitoring, both on the wetlands and here on the Olentangy, which we can build on to evaluate ecosystem changes."

Suzanne Gray, assistant professor of fish ecology, was hooked by that deep, wide approach. The Nova Scotia, Canada, native came on board last year.

"I was really excited to come here because of the multidisciplinary aspects of the work and the different dimensions involved," she said while also a host of the tour, "not just to work on fish biology and water quality, but also to work with people who think of things from the human perspective."

For example, "there are faculty working with land use practices and agriculture and how that’s going to flow downstream into the waters where I’m studying the fish," she said.

"That’s the reason I came here — to work with people who think of things not only from the fishes’ perspective, in this case, but in a way that we can work together to look at issues more broadly."

Behind her, CFAES stream ecology students waded in a fast-moving riffle, using an electrofishing device to sample fish species, a way to gauge the river’s health.

Tree swallows flew overhead. Sunlight flashed on the riffle. Yards away, runners and bicyclists raced past on the Olentangy Greenway Trail. A mallard duck landed on the river’s far bank near the blue and orange tents of a homeless encampment.

"Eventually, all things merge into one," Norman Maclean wrote at the end of A River Runs Through It.

That "one" may boil down to water.

"We all need clean water. It’s such a compelling and pressing problem for so many people," Jaeger said. "The fact that it’s inherently important also makes it really interesting to me as a scientist."

"Water quality," Dr Sullivan said, "is an absolutely critical piece of our daily lives and our future."

July 2014

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