Summer Update from the IWC Graduate Student Research Grant Program: Nathan Young

Post submitted by Nathan Young, a PhD student co-majoring in Geology and Environmental Science here at Iowa State University.

Over the past 30 years, computer simulations of groundwater flow have become a standard tool for investigating water quality and quantity issues across the globe. Because of a number of limitations, ranging from data availability to available computer power, these simulations (or “models”) contain a number of simplifying assumptions that prevent them from being perfect representations of the location being studied. For instance, if the subsurface was composed primarily of sand with some gravel mixed in, we may tell the model that the subsurface is only composed of sand to simplify the model and make it run faster. While these assumptions may be acceptable under most circumstances, several common assumptions made about the subsurface in Iowa may in fact impede our understanding of how water and nutrients are moving throughout the state. In Iowa’s till dominated watersheds, the subsurface is commonly treated as a fairly homogenous low-permeability material, while in reality, ultra-small-scale cracks (or fractures) present in this material provide pipe-like pathways through which water and nutrients can move very rapidly. These fractures are often omitted from models due to the massive amount of computer power required to include them in the type of watershed-scale investigations that would be conducted for the purposes of evaluating regional water quality.

In spring 2017, I was awarded funding in the Iowa Water Center Graduate Student Supplemental Research Competition for my project titled, “Simulation of Watershed-Scale Nitrate Transport in Fractured Till Using Upscaled Parameters Obtained from Till Core.” My research seeks to accomplish two goals: to develop a method to include fractures in watershed-scale models, and then to evaluate the extent to which these ultra-small-scale fractures enhance groundwater flow and nutrient transport at the watershed scale.

This past summer I have made significant progress on my project on a number of fronts. My laboratory experiments on a series of 16x16x16 cm sediment samples excavated from the Dakota Access Pipeline trenches are ongoing, but they are progressing forward. I am currently conducting flow experiments on the samples using groundwater spiked with a chemical tracer. These samples contain small-scale cracks, called fractures, which provide pathways for very rapid movement of fluid and tracer in what would otherwise be a largely impervious material. By measuring the flow rate of fluid coming out of the sample, as well as the concentration of tracer that this effluent contains, I can quantify to what degree these fractures are enhancing flow within the sample. Early results of this work show that as we move deeper in the subsurface, water moves through the samples more slowly (which is what we would expect to see) yet these flow rates are still higher than we would find if the samples did not contain fractures. Furthermore, tracer concentrations in the sample effluent indicate that the fractures are providing preferential pathways for the tracer to flow through, resulting in tracer exiting the sample much sooner than if it were unfractured. I have been fortunate to have the assistance of two undergraduates, Jay Karani ’19, and Kate Staebell ’17, in setting up these experiments and analyzing the resulting output. This work would have taken much longer without their help!

I have also been working to develop a set of new computational methods that will allow for the role that these fractures play in groundwater flow and solute transport to be included in watershed-scale computer models. Previously, accounting for groundwater flow in fractures was too computationally intensive to include in models larger than the size of a small field. Yet the early results of my work suggest that we may have found a method to circumvent this computational limitation by computing a new set of flow parameters using sophisticated, small-scale groundwater flow simulations and field data.  I presented some preliminary results of this work at the 2017 MODFLOW and More conference in Golden, Colorado, this past May, and was awarded 2nd place for graduate student presentations. A short paper on this work was also published in the conference proceedings. I am currently finalizing my results in preparation for a talk I will be giving at the Geological Society of America’s National meeting in Seattle later this month. I am also in the process of writing up the results for publication, and hope to have one of two manuscripts ready for submission by the end of the semester.

Finally, I was invited to visit Laval University in Quebec City, Canada this past August to work with Dr. René Therrien, a professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering who developed the groundwater model I am using in my research. With the help of Dr. Therrien and his research group, I was able to accomplish in two weeks what would have likely taken me three months on my own. I have already been invited back to work with them again in summer 2018. We are working together to write a grant proposal to secure funding for that visit. I am confident that continued work with my collaborators at Laval University will enable me to include more detail in my study area, Walnut Creek watershed, into the overall model of the watershed I am currently building.

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Project-Based Learning for future water leaders

Student project from the Bluestem Institute (left). Image of the Southfork Watershed Alliance sign (right).

Story submitted by Melissa Miller, Associate Director for the Iowa Water Center

In fall of 2015, I met with a group of 60 high school students at the headwaters of the South Fork of the Iowa River, right off the shoulder of Hwy 69 in North Central Iowa. It was a beautiful (but cold) fall morning, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that a class from Ames High School (AHS) was out to define a list of water quality terms, and they were doing so through experiences, including this on-site interview with my local farmer-led grassroots watershed group.

What I found out about this group of students was worth my shivering out in the cold while corn-loaded semis blasted by the school buses at 60 mph. These students and three teachers were part of the Bluestem Institute, an integrated capstone seminar based on project-based learning and extended inquiry frameworks. As I built a relationship over the next several months with teachers Mike Todd, Joe Brekke, and Chad Zmolek, we discovered more ways for the class and the Iowa Water Center to interact, culminating in a gallery showing of the students’ final projects at the 10th annual Iowa Water Conference.

I wasn’t the only one transfixed with the students’ high level of engagement and understanding of complex water issues. Pat Sauer, with the Iowa Stormwater Education Partnership, came to me in early summer of 2016 with a vision of packaging the Bluestem Institute and making it accessible for all schools in Iowa to implement.

Serendipitously, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture had recently received a bequest from the estate of Iowan Robert Margroff designated for youth education about the environment. With the help of the AHS teachers that created the Bluestem Institute, we submitted and were subsequently awarded three years of funding to develop the framework and pilot it in two Iowa schools.

Now nearly a year into the project, dubbed “The Watershed Project,” we have discovered that we are always learning. Davenport North High School faculty Laura McCreery and City of Davenport Public Works employee Robbin Dunn are nine weeks into implementing the project in McCreery’s classroom. Over the life of the project, we will blog about the process of designing the framework and the experiences of our implementation schools.

The immediate outcome of this project will be an educational framework for teachers to implement project-based learning in Iowa high schools that address intersections of science, government, sociology, economics, and art as they relate to decision-making regarding water and land use at local levels. We hope to inspire more than that – we hope this program inspires students and communities to take greater interest in environmental sustainability issues. We hope the students in these programs consider entering STEM fields post-graduation, armed with interdisciplinary knowledge so they can inspire new solutions. We hope to develop emerging generations of citizens and civic leaders that value and implement environmentally sustainable policies and strategies. Ultimately, we dream of engaged, resilient communities that proactively and collaboratively address soil and water conservation issues.

Melissa2
Melissa Miller is the associate director of the Iowa Water Center. She earned a BS in Kinesiology from Iowa State University with an emphasis in Community and Public Health. She is currently pursuing a MS degree in Community Development with an emphasis in Natural Resource Management, also from Iowa State University.

Summer Update from the IWC Graduate Student Research Grant Program: Emily Martin

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Post submitted by Emily Martin, MS Environmental Science student at Iowa State University

Intensive farming and heavy nutrient application in the Midwest coupled with an extensive subsurface tile drainage network frequently leads to excessive nutrients in surface waters. As a result, heavy amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus has become a critical issue for policy and water research.

In spring 2017, I was awarded funding in the Iowa Water Center Graduate Student Supplemental Research Competition for my project titled, “Enhancing phosphate removal in woodchip bioreactors.” This project is conducted under advisement of Dr. Michelle Soupir at Iowa State University. A bioreactor is a subsurface trench along the edge of the field that can be filled with a range of different carbon sources. They are identified as a practice to help mitigate nutrient loss to flowing water systems, and so they deserve further research to understand their full capacity to capture water nutrients.

The goal of the project is to evaluate the ability of woodchip bioreactors to remove phosphorous by adding biochar as a phosphate (P) amendment to bioreactors. Objectives of the study are (1) to assess the effectiveness of different amendments on P removal in bioreactors and (2) to analyze the effect of influent P on overall removal.

We broke the project down into two main parts: a P sorption study and a column study. We completed part one during the month of June using 18 different types of biochar. The biochar was made by Bernardo Del Campo at ARTichar using three different temperatures of slow pyrolysis, 400°C, 600°C, and 800°C. We used six different types of biomass provided by the BioCentury Research Farm and the City of Ames, which are: switchgrass, corn stover, ash trees, red oak, mixed pine, and loblolly pine. The goal was to test a variety of biomass to see which would perform best as a P amendment and under which pyrolysis conditions they would function best.

Biochar is made using a process called pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is the burning of plant materials in a low to no oxygen chamber in order to “activate” the carbon structures that exists naturally within plants. The highly structured form of carbon rings in plants is desired for its stability and potential to adsorb or bind with chemicals, including phosphate and nitrate. There are two main types of pyrolysis: fast and slow, which refers to the amount of time the biomass remains in the pyrolysis chamber. Fast pyrolysis can be used to create biochar, but the yield is lower than slow pyrolysis. The temperature of pyrolysis can impact how the biochar interacts with different chemicals. In order to test these effects, we used three different temperatures when making our biochar.

Results from the P sorption study showed a few patterns. The main take away is that none of the biochars we tested adsorbed P exceptionally well; however, of the biochars we tested, the following were our top five P adsorbers:

  1. Corn stover @ 800°C
  2. Loblolly pine @ 600°C
  3. Red oak @ 600°C
  4. Switch grass @ 800°C
  5. Mixed pine @ 400°C

Because none of the biochars performed well in our P sorption test, we had to make a decision for the second part of the project. We came up with two options: (1) find new biomass and run the P sorption test again, or (2) test how well all 18 biochars remove nitrate from water. We chose option two and have begun nitrate batch tests, which will run throughout July. The batch tests are being run in one liter flasks and are tested at 4, 8, 12, and 24 hours to simulate woodchip bioreactor residence times found in the field.

After the nitrate batch test is complete, we will analyze results and decide if we will move forward with option one and see how other biomasses perform in a P sorption test.

Check back later on to learn more about the progress of this project!

 

SWCD Internship Available (Greene County)

2017 Greene Soil and Water Conservation District Summer Internships

Duration: 10-12 weeks, 40 hours per week

Locations available: Jefferson, Iowa (Greene County)

Pay: $12.00 per hour

Qualifications: Open to any students currently enrolled in college or recent graduate majoring in a field of study related to agriculture, conservation, engineering, construction trades, GIS, communications, public relations, urban planning, or environmental sciences.

Duties: The Intern will assist the Greene Soil and Water Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service with duties including, but not limited to:

  • Working with local landowners and partners to develop interest in and commitment to implementation of conservation programs and activities
  • Water quality monitoring through the collection of water quality samples
  • Assist field office staff with the development of conservation plans and implementation of conservation practices
  • Working with Palmer Amaranth in CRP plantings.

Work environment: This position includes both office and field work. Successful candidates will work as part of a local team as well as independently, be able to traverse rough terrain on foot, spend time outdoors in the summer months, be able to work with the public including landowners and customers, use GPS/GIS tools, work in extreme temperature or inclement weather as required, work around large equipment, and complete work in a timely manner. A valid driver’s license is required.

Reporting: The Intern will report to the District Conservationist on a day-to-day basis. A background check of the student will be required.

The student Intern will also make a formal presentation at the end of their internship to report on their experience and work completed over the summer. The student is expected to coordinate the planning of this meeting and present findings to interested conservation partners.

Deadline to apply: Applications must be received (not postmarked) by 4:00 p.m. on Monday, May 8th, 2017

Application Process: Submit a Cover letter and Resume or attached application to: Greene Soil and Water Conservation District, 1703 N ELM ST, Jefferson, Iowa 50129

SWCD Internship Available (Boone County)

2017 Boone Soil and Water Conservation District Summer Internships

Duration: 10-12 weeks, 40 hours per week

Locations available: Boone, Iowa (Boone County)

Pay: $12.00 per hour

Qualifications: Open to any students currently enrolled in college or recent graduate majoring in a field of study related to agriculture, conservation, engineering, construction trades, GIS, communications, public relations, urban planning, or environmental sciences.

Duties: The Intern will assist the Boone Soil and Water Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service with duties including, but not limited to:

  • Working with local landowners and partners to develop interest in and commitment to implementation of conservation programs and activities
  • Water quality monitoring through the collection of water quality samples
  • Assist field office staff with the development of conservation plans and implementation of conservation practices
  • Working with Palmer Amaranth in CRP plantings.

Work environment: This position includes both office and field work.  Successful candidates will work as part of a local team as well as independently, be able to traverse rough terrain on foot, spend time outdoors in the summer months, be able to work with the public including landowners and customers, use GPS/GIS tools, work in extreme temperature or inclement weather as required, work around large equipment, and complete work in a timely manner.  A valid driver’s license is required.

Reporting:  The Intern will report to the District Conservationist on a day-to-day basis. A background check of the student will be required. The student Intern will also make a formal presentation at the end of their internship to report on their experience and work completed over the summer. The student is expected to coordinate the planning of this meeting and present findings to interested conservation partners.

 Deadline to apply

Applications must be received (not postmarked) by 4:00 p.m. on Monday, May 8th, 2017

Application Process

Submit a Cover letter and Resume or 2017 Boone SWCD Summer Intern Application to:

Boone Soil and Water Conservation District, 1602 Snedden Drive, Boone, Iowa 50036

For more information about a specific position, contact:

Boone, Iowa (Boone County) – Jayne Smith, Conservation Assistant, 515-432-2316 Ext. 3

Iowa Water Conference 2017

Submitted by Solomon Worlds, Iowa Water Center Science Communication Intern

Dear Readership:

The discussion of water research and policy at the Iowa Water Conference was far from dry. As a student who is very interested in the happenings of Iowa’s waterways, I found many aspects of the conference very informative.

The first presentation, “From the Bottom Up,” was a terrific way to get everyone engaged right from the start. Chad’s story of cleaning the Mississippi river, among others, was inspiring and exhilarating. The sessions after this were all quite informative, but I remember thinking, “I know nothing.” As I expressed in the past, my water knowledge is shabby at best and that was never more salient than it was when I was at the Iowa Water Conference (It also did not help that I was ill and made frequent trips to the restroom to wash my hands to prevent the spread of germs).

The second day, which featured a version of me that did not have a fever or a runny nose, was much more enjoyable. I was also the moderator for the “Engaging the community as a partner” sessions. Hearing about a project that has happened in a community near me in the second session was fascinating. I had no idea that so much was happening right in my city. Hearing about new scientific educational methods to engage our young students early on in their education was also very interesting, as I have been a student for the bulk of my young life. The last discussion in that track was on communicating the risk of what is happening and, as a science communicator, I found that immensely useful.

Overall, I enjoyed my time at the Iowa Water Conference. I wish I had been healthier, but that is not the Water Conference’s problem. I did feel a bit isolated, however, being that my research is in psychology and policy. I would recommend brushing up on H2O before you decide to go.

 

Flow freely my friends,

P.S.: Rick Cruse is a man of many talents. When he is not leading the Iowa Water Center, he writes lyrics to famous songs. Check it out! https://youtu.be/SPeHRhxhBI4

Solomon Furious Worlds

Breaking down the Waters of the US

Submitted by Solomon Worlds, Iowa Water Center Science Communication Intern

Note: This post, and the referenced Riessen article, was written prior to the release of the Executive Order issues on WOTUS. The EO can be found here.

Hello Readership,

Recently, there has been a great deal of commotion around a recurring Supreme Court case that has yet to be ruled on. This legal battle is just another in the long line of battles over a famous piece of legislation we know as the Clean Water Act (CWA). This most recent battle is over the “Waters of the US rule” (WOTUS) definition that was made by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers in June of 2015. Immediately after the decision was made, many legislators and officials (including our Iowa governor and two federal senators) voiced their opposition.

Some say that the federal government is overstepping their bounds. They say the federal government does not have jurisdiction over some of the WOTUS and that the June 2015 definition is either too broad or too vague. However, is there real constitutional precedent to halt the federal government’s involvement? What is actually in the CWA? Since this fight has made it to back the Supreme Court, what is different? And, what were the decisions of previous hearings? What will be the outcome of this rendition?

Jack Riessen, P.E., retired Iowa Department of Natural Resources employee and former advisory board member for the Iowa Water Center, wrote a short informative report in January 2017 that answers all of my above questions and probably a few others that you may have thought of. His well-written article carefully gives a brief history of the CWA fight by outlining the events of the past that have gotten us to where we are now. This enlightening review is written to appeal to those who do and those who do not know a lot about water, making it accessible for everyone. Click here to read Riessen’s full piece.

Flow forward my friends,

Solomon Furious Worlds

P.S.: In my first post, I promised more information on my name. My father wanted my middle name to start with an “F.” It was almost “Francis,” but there was a character from a popular 1991 film featured a character whose name was “Jason ‘Furious’ Styles.”