Student research focuses on improving creek restoration efforts

Roger Coda
SUNY Fredonia Geology majors (from left) Elizabeth Wightman, Brett Boyer and Abigail Nordwall collect suspended sediment water samples in Dewittville Creek, Geology major

SUNY Fredonia Geology majors (from left) Elizabeth Wightman, Brett Boyer and Abigail Nordwall collect suspended sediment water samples in Dewittville Creek.

Compiling research leading to better watershed management in Chautauqua and Erie (N.Y.) counties is the central focus of three Geology students engaging in hands-on field- and lab-based experiences at SUNY Fredonia.

Elizabeth Wightman, Abigail Nordwall and Brett Boyer – all seniors majoring in Geology and enrolled in GEO 410: Directed Study - Independent Study and Research – ­are learning various aspects of stream management and monitoring in Dewittville Creek, in Chautauqua County, and Spooner Creek, in Erie County.

“Students are learning how to do various stream measurements, lab analysis and interpretation,” said Geology and Environmental Sciences Assistant Professor Matthew Purtill, who teaches the upper-level course. “It's a unique experience for the student where they get to generate 'real' data that will ultimately help various communities make decisions to improve water quality and stream health.”

“It was more than just work; we had to problem-solve in the moment, figure out logistics firsthand, and were given the freedom to do so.” – Abigail Nordwall

The field portion of the class involves recording various water parameters, such as flow, velocity and chemistry, as well as composition of the creek banks.

“A major benefit from this course is being able to collect field data that is similar to what companies in this line of work do,” said Mr. Boyer, of Randolph. “It's a huge benefit to get valuable hours in the field and spending time using equipment that will likely be used at a future job.”

Gaining experience in using tools and learning skills needed to work in the field is a major benefit of this research, added Ms. Wightman, of Campbell. “Between learning how to properly handle equipment to recording data, I feel prepared to graduate and get a job in the field. In addition to the experience outside, my lab skills have also improved immensely,” she said.

“This course provided the chance to learn how to work on a team and what it will be like when we begin our careers,” said Wightman, who is also majoring in Earth Science.

Simply getting outside and applying skills learned in the classroom was a “massive eye-opener” to future career opportunities and goals for Ms. Nordwall, of Jamestown.

“It was more than just work; we had to problem-solve in the moment, figure out logistics firsthand, and were given the freedom to do so,” Nordwall explained. “Working with my peers and Dr. Purtill solidified that this is something that I would want to do in the future. It was an educational and realistic experience that took us out of the classroom and into the real world.”

Central to the research is how erosion can be related to the cloudy appearance of water and its actual flow volume, Dr. Purtill explained. What is the potential for the streams to erode their banks is the question students are seeking to answer.

Working in conjunction with the Chautauqua County Soil and Water Conservation District, students are continuing in a multi-year study that’s monitoring the effectiveness of a major stream bank restoration project undertaken to control erosion in Dewittville Creek. Significant stream migration and erosion at a specific bend of the creek prompted construction of a boulder wall structure to stabilize the creek bank and placement of several spurs to redirect water flow away from the bank. More than $100,000 was spent on these improvements.

Part of what the students are doing is evaluating how well those structures are performing what the soil and water conservation district thinks they are accomplishing, Purtill explained. “Missing from a lot of (similar) projects is long-term monitoring – five, 10 years – to see if it’s protecting the stream like we thought it would.”

Another element of the Dewittville Creek study is the flow of sediment that’s creating sandbars in Chautauqua Lake that become obstacles to boaters. Creek data generated by the students will also be entered into a larger study of harmful algae blooms. 

“We are helping them to evaluate how effective those measures have been. That way, this information can be used in how to modify these kinds of projects in the future or reinforce what they’re doing,” Purtill said.

Dewittville Creek data compiled by students in the course a year ago was featured in a poster at the Student Research and Creativity Expo at the SUNY Fredonia campus.

At Spooner Creek, a tributary of Cattaraugus Creek, students are partnering with State Department of Environmental Conservation staff by compiling additional data on how to best manage the Cattaraugus watershed.

Murky conditions in the creek have been traced to erosion along creek banks that are adversely impacting the fishing industry, a major economic driver.

“The big concern is for fishing,” Purtill said. Cattaraugus Creek has become a very dirty creek, with significant suspended sedimentation that’s detrimental to fishing and other forms of recreational tourism, he explained.

“We hope to provide data on soil and water quality so that (communities) can make good decisions in the future on how to control flooding issues,” Purtill said.

The DEC reached out to Purtill for ways to partner with the university. “This will be a great experience for the students,” he said.

Boyer sees this research fitting well with the type of work she’ll be doing after graduation.

“Having experience measuring stream discharge, pH, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, collecting survey points, etc.…are all helpful in environmental work. This experience has helped translate classroom concepts into real world skills,” Boyer explained. “Overall, it's great to be outside all day and to get credits towards my degree for it,” he added.

Before enrolling in the course, Wightman had little idea she would enjoy doing this kind of research so much. She says this is the field she wants to enter, adding, “The work is rewarding and fun!”

Whatever students pursue in environmental research or in job opportunities after graduation, Purtill said, this research is providing them with hands-on experience with equipment and research approaches used in modern-day consulting.

“We are giving them a head-start on a lot of potential jobs, because they will have had real work experience in measuring data to solve problems,” Purtill added. Students will have had networking opportunities with DEC staff that can potentially lead to internships or job openings.

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