December 07, 2011

Students and professors presented their research at a symposium Dec. 2.

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. - On the edge of the Bucknell University golf course along Abbey Lane, a tiny waterway emerges, looking more like a drainage ditch than a viable stream.

Miller Run, a Susquehanna River tributary that wends through Bucknell's campus, is a typical, suburban stream, damaged over the years by heavy flows of stormwater - water that has drained from roofs and pavement into streams and rivers. According to Cathy Myers, interim executive director of the Environmental Center, such streams contribute to localized flash flooding, pollution in the river and eventually dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay.

The small creek recently became the focus of a major collaborative research project involving more than 80 students and 11 faculty members as well as administrators and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Working with faculty and administrative staff, the students gathered information through on-the-ground GPS measurements, GIS mapping, aerial drone flights, water and sediment sampling and a native and invasive plant assessment. The information will be used by state and Bucknell planning and facilities officials to create a design and restoration plan.

"What you're seeing here is a community of students and faculty coming together to share what they're learning about stream and ecology restoration," said Ben Hayes, director of the Susquehanna River Initiative at the Bucknell Environmental Center.

Class report prompted project
The project is an outgrowth of studies conducted by then-graduate student Alison Schaffer in 2007 and by a Stream Restoration class taught by Professor of Geology Craig Kochel and Associate Professor of Biology Matt McTammany in 2009. The class produced a report that catalyzed the Miller Run project. || See class report.

The DEP in 2010 awarded Bucknell a $178,000 Growing Greener grant to restore the upper portion of Miller Run, west of Route 15, to reduce erosion, improve water quality and relieve local flooding.

This past summer and fall, Assistant Professor of Geology Rob Jacob, GIS Specialist Janine Glather and Hayes helped students prepare a high resolution base map of the study and restoration areas to provide the elevations for construction and design in the spring. Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Richard Crago's class evaluated hydraulic flow. Associate Professor of Geography Duane Griffin's ecology class examined natural native landscapes and made recommendations for rebuilding critical biodiversity in riparian corridors and wetlands. And computer science major Nick Urban designed and built a remote-control aerial drone to capture high-resolution images of Miller Run.

Kochel and Hayes worked with students to analyze the natural channel path and assess what type of flow it can accommodate using a recirculating sediment flume. The goal was to design a channel with improved physical and ecological function and to reconnect the stream with its floodplain, Kochel said.

"The students investigated designs for the channel and floodplain that move closer to what was there prior to anthropogenic disturbance and toward a geomorphic design that works with the natural processes governing streams, rather than a more traditional approach that relies on hardened structures which perform poorly in flooding and over time," Kochel said.

Connecting the dots
Through their research, the students gained hands-on experience while learning how the various parts of a project come together, Hayes said.

"We recently held a large stream restoration workshop here on campus, which brought together scholars, engineers, consultants and officials from environmental regulatory agencies all over the United States," Hayes said. "A consensus emerged from that workshop that universities such as Bucknell have a unique opportunity to conduct baseline studies before, during and after stream or wetland restoration projects.  The idea is that the campus is not only a beautiful place but an instructional outdoor classroom."

Senior Maxwell Stiss, a geography and Spanish double major, for example, was part of the team that collected elevation data to assess the stream's contours.

"We used machetes, hacking through the contours of the path of the stream to get measurements that are accurate within an eighth of an inch," Stiss said. "Others took aerial images which show a bigger picture."

Junior geology major Jon Algeo was part of a team that assessed the level of bedrock beneath the stream.

"We laid out arrays of electrodes to detect layers in the subsurface with different electric properties," he said. "The goal was to determine if the bedrock was deep enough to excavate multiple channels in order to restore the stream to a pre-settlement, pre-agricultural state."

Junior Jason Muhlbauer, a geology major, traveled to Lancaster and Maine with his classmates to see examples of restored stream, visiting projects done by some of the most progressive geomorphic consulting teams and academics in the field of stream restoration.

"Historical photos of Miller Run show it is closer to the road now than it used to be," he said. "When it floods, water flows out fast. That's why we want to put in intermittent wetlands to store water. They will allow Miller Run to flow longer during drought and will decrease flooding on campus."

Expanded wetland areas
As part of the restoration project, the stream banks and channels will be redesigned and wetlands will be expanded to encourage water to be absorbed into the ground rather than discharged to the Susquehanna River.

"The excess stormwater that has been piped into Miller Run needs safe places to overflow its eroded banks, spread out and dissipate energy," Myers said. "The student-faculty research recommends expanded wetland areas, multiple stream channels, and native vegetation that will sink roots deep into riparian fringes, slowing and absorbing water and providing diverse habitat."

Posters of some of the research are on display at the O'Leary Center at Bucknell.

In addition to the DEP grant, the Miller Run restoration project was supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Charles B. Degenstein Foundation and Bucknell.

Contact: Division of Communications