Wading into muddy creeks to measure stream velocity or going out in the rain to gather water samples was about more than just completing a project for geology students in a senior seminar research class. Their student-designed analysis of creeks in the Cullowhee community and how groundwater and streamwater interact was about being part of an effort that continues today and could help improve water quality.
“I realized how much fun it is to actually put into practice what we learned in class, and how gratifying it was to see a project that we had designed turn out so well and be used to help the groundwater evaluation sites be established at WCU,” said John Hayes ’10, from Chapel Hill. “Water is one of the most valuable resources we have, and we need to do more to protect it so it is clean and does not run out.”
Their research not only earned the students an invitation to present at a national professional meeting but also proved to be preliminary work on sites that are now part of the developing WCU Hydrologic Station. As part of the initiative, WCU has committed to participate in regular groundwater and streamwater research and monitoring, and the N.C. Division of Water Quality has installed about 40 shallow groundwater wells around campus at depths ranging from 5 to 25 feet.
“It is an opportunity to partner with a university doing work of common interest,” said Ted Campbell, a hydrogeologist with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “By working with WCU on this project, we can leverage our resources to learn more about groundwater and stream interactions, and water quality in these settings, which will help us to determine whether or not current approaches to sampling and permitting are appropriate and optimally effective.”
Mark Lord, head of WCU’s Geosciences and Natural Resources Department, said students in the senior seminar research class are encouraged to focus their work on regional issues. Classes have focused on such topics as landslides in Haywood County, paleoclimate analysis of a wetland in Panthertown, the impact of Dillsboro dam on the Tuckaseigee River and now, streamwater and groundwater.
“This is a great example of giving students a terrific learning experience that is authentic and real in which they collaborate with professionals in a wide variety of disciplines on research that is important to our region,” said Lord. “Understanding our groundwater resources is increasingly important as we see more development and, as we saw in recent years, with drought conditions that caused wells to run dry. The more we know, the better informed we will be in making decisions that affect the quantity and quality of water in our community.”
The experience helped push Danvey Walsh ’10 to pursue his master’s degree in hydrogeology at the University of Nevada in Reno, where he is a research assistant working on a 3-D geothermal reservoir modeling project. “I really learned that there is a lack of public education when it comes to groundwater and water issues,” Walsh said. “I hope this project can help reach out and inform the community about where our water really comes from.”