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Preserving and Restoring Our Most Treasured Resource: Water

Rensselaer researchers are making significant contributions to the discovery, management, and sustainability of the world’s water bodies and the delicate ecosystems contained in them

By Jodi Ackerman Frank

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* Bettina Schimanski and Selmer Bringsjord with PERI

The education and research facilities at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute on Lake George. Photo by Kris Qua.
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Water. The lifeblood of all living things. Integrated into our lives in so many different ways, it is nearly an enigma. We use it to grow our food and power our businesses.

We swim in it, use it as a means for travel, and seek it out to rejuvenate our spirits. We dump our wastes into it and drink it repurified from 24-ounce plastic bottles.

Pointing to its growing scarcity, degradation, and the alarming declines in the health of aquatic ecosystems worldwide, the United Nations has identified protecting this vital resource as one of the central global challenges of the 21st century.

At Rensselaer, researchers continue to make significant contributions to the discovery, management, and sustainability of the world’s water bodies and the delicate ecosystems contained in them, from discovering rare microorganisms in the hot springs in the Philippines to monitoring pollution levels in America’s most treasured lakes and rivers.

A key component to the vast and growing field of water research at Rensselaer is the Margaret A. and David M. Darrin ’40 Fresh Water Institute (DFWI). Established nearly 40 years ago, DFWI is widely regarded for its all-encompassing study of freshwaters.

“The DFWI remains at the forefront of environmental activities at Rensselaer and continues to be a state, local, national, and international resource,” says DFWI Director Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer. “We continue to integrate new and emerging bio- and information technologies with traditional ecology methods for the study and preservation of freshwaters.”

The DFWI operates a state-of-the-art field station, situated on the crystalline Lake George at the foot of the Adirondack Mountains in Bolton Landing, N.Y. Outfitted with scuba gear, research vessels, and underwater video equipment, scientists use the lake as a test bed to study a wide variety of biological and ecological systems, and the effects that human activity, pollution, and invasive species have on these systems.

Some of the most current tools for water and watershed analysis are housed in the W. M. Keck Foundation Water Quality Laboratory, established in 1997 on the Troy campus and operated by the DFWI.

“The idea was to establish a facility that would not only have the necessary advanced instrumentation to move our research efforts to the next level, but, at the same time, it would be a place to pull together activities and programs across campus,” Nierzwicki-Bauer says.

In that effort, DFWI has become a focal point for unique research, teaming up with researchers in biology, chemistry, earth and environmental sciences, engineering, environmental management, and humanities and social sciences.

“Scoping Out” Our Lakes and Rivers
Rensselaer’s interdisciplinary water research and expertise has long been noticed by state and federal environmental agencies eager to improve and introduce new programs and policies to protect clean water sources for generations to come. One major area that the university continues to garner attention is its work on the Hudson River.

The 315-mile river begins at Lake Tear of the Clouds on Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the state, and ends at New York Harbor, the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean. The river is influenced by the ocean's tides for more than half its length, creating an estuary with tidal flow as far north as Troy. Inputs of industrial, municipal, and agricultural wastes have made the river and its tributaries some of the nation's most polluted. Although many experts agree that the Hudson is now the cleanest it’s been in decades, recovery is far from complete.

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* Bettina Schimanski and Selmer Bringsjord with PERI

Governor George Pataki's press conference announcing the Upper Hudson Satellite Center.
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In its ongoing efforts to revitalize the river, New York state recently established the Rivers and Estuaries Center on the Hudson, a world-class research and education center dedicated to the study of rivers, estuaries, and watersheds. The facility’s main headquarters is located in Beacon. The other components include an Upper Hudson Research, Education, and Outreach Satellite Center that Rensselaer will head, and a Lower Hudson Satellite Center that Columbia University will head.

The Upper Hudson Satellite Center will play an essential role in the state’s efforts in advancing the understanding of the Hudson River and will help guide policies for conservation and the management of this vital water source, according to Nierzwicki-Bauer, who chairs the satellite center’s external advisory committee.

“The Upper Hudson, in particular, is critical to our understanding of the river since it is the location of the headwaters, contains the major tributaries into the overall Hudson River, and is at the head of the estuary for the river in Troy,” says Nierzwicki-Bauer. “Our goal is to create a networked infrastructure of environmental field facilities for use by a diverse community of scientists, educators, regulators, and the general public.”

In conjunction with the City of Troy and the Rivers and Estuaries Center, Rensselaer is developing a five-acre site overlooking the Hudson River in south Troy that will serve as the home for its Upper Hudson Satellite Center. Meanwhile, a multidisciplinary mix of Rensselaer researchers are already involved in the first initiative of the Rivers and Estuaries Center on the Hudson.

In the initiative called Riverscope, Rensselaer has begun to utilize advanced monitoring and sensing devices to observe and monitor the Hudson River. The collaboration with Columbia University and other organizations will eventually encompass linking monitoring sites along the river from Troy to Staten Island.

As part of the monitoring process, five Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCPs) have been strategically placed along the river. ADCPs, which emit sound waves, are typically used to measure the speed of currents in the ocean and the velocity of rivers and streams.

But Riverscope researchers are using the devices in a new way to measure the amount of sediments suspended in a water column, says Damon Chaky, a postdoctoral researcher on the Rensselaer ADCP team. The instruments allow researchers to determine how quickly sediments are transported as a result of environmental factors, such as storms or major spring runoff.

“Long-term studies with this technology will provide a detailed picture of how land use and human development impact the erosion and transport of soils from watersheds,” says Richard Bopp, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences (EES), whose Hudson River expertise is an integral part of the Riverscope project.

The data from ADCPs and other instruments will be used to help analyze and predict the spread and impact of contaminants and microorganisms within the river, and will provide a better understanding of river behavior. Rensselaer researchers plan to integrate the data into interactive multimedia software to create virtual tours of the testing areas.

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