June 18, 2008

Research focuses on protecting water quality

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When it comes to figuring out how best to protect water quality, Jon E. Schoonover and Karl W.J. Williard are thinking big.

“There’s been a lot of research done at the plot scale, but that doesn’t capture all the things in the watershed that can affect water quality,” said Schoonover, a scientist from Southern Illinois University Carbondale who focuses on water-related problems.

Williard, also an SIUC hydrologist, said, “There’s so much variability in the landscape -- fertility regimes, water flow, processing of nutrients in the stream ecosystem. We are trying to answer questions about the best designs for riparian buffers and devise nutrient counting procedures for an entire watershed. This may be the only study in the U.S. on a scale of this size.”

Researchers have, for years, recommended planting buffer strips of grass, shrubs or a combination of the two along the banks of creeks and streams as a way of keeping contaminants from washing off farm fields into the water supply. State and federal agencies have offered financial “carrots” to farmers willing to do so. But nobody really knows how effective such strips are in the real world over time.

Schoonover and Williard aim to change that. Using three small watersheds on University farmland, the pair hope to discover not just how well buffer strips perform long term but which kinds of plantings work best to filter out pollutants, protect against erosion and keep creeks and streams from filling up with sediment.

“The unique part of our research is that we’re using giant cane as a buffer species,” Williard said. “No one has ever looked at it as a riparian species before.”

The pair already has shown in small-scale studies that giant cane, a native bamboo once blanketing Southern Illinois, effectively filters runoff of both sediment and unused fertilizer nutrients. Because state and federal agencies support re-establishing this species back into its native range, determining cane’s usefulness in buffer zones adds to the project’s scope.

“It gives us a restoration ecology component,” Williard said.

While most buffer strip research has focused on the ability to trap sediment and nutrients, Schoonover and Williard are adding fecal bacteria to the mix, not only because of the harm such bacteria do to the water but because the researchers can collect the data quickly.

“Monitoring projects like ours, where you look at the before and after of restoration over time, don’t attract a lot of funding,” Williard said.

“The fecal coliform data will give us relevant, immediate results.”

Schoonover said, “Because University Farms kept records of all the manure and fertilizer applications they have done, we can go back through time and see what’s been done and how that might influence the present-day water quality.”

In addition to those measurements, the pair is recording information on other water quality indicators, stream flows, stream bed composition and channel measurements. It’s a three-year process.

“This is our calibration period where we establish what’s there before we do our treatments (planting buffers of cane, of mixed hardwood and of grass),” Schoonover said.

“After that, we can go to federal agencies with our pre-treatment data. Because we already have those calibrations, future projects would provide relatively immediate results, so I think we have a pretty good chance of getting funding to do the treatments and then follow through with cane restoration.”

Williard noted that as water in creeks, streams and rivers moves, so do the problems that affect it. Because he and Schoonover are looking at an entire system rather than a piece of it, their findings may help remedy those problems.

“We believe we can make a unique and valuable contribution, not only to the University’s research but also on a national and maybe even international scale,” he said.