Monday, November 26, 2001

ST. MARY’S CITY, Md — Students at St. Mary’s College here do more than study the river that winds around their bucolic campus.They navigate, analyze and document its placid waters in a motorboat that doubles as a floating classroom.
The college’s St. Mary’s River Project, in its third year, takes the ecological pulse of the storied St. Mary’s River, which nurtured the first English settlement in Maryland.
The project, supported first by the Environmental Protection Agency and now by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, measures the river’s health while recording changes to it wrought through time and the impact from developed areas along its banks.
The 20 or so students of varying disciplines who work with the program each semester get the kind of hands-on involvement that could spark a career.
The project is co-directed by biology professors Chris Tanner and Bob Paul, who both boast a quarter-century of St. Mary’s College service.
“It gives students a sense of purpose. Freshmen can get involved right away with the project,” Mr. Tanner says. “This year we had the biggest crop of new students.”
Research goes on year-round, save for any dangerous weather spells.
Students, who submit papers based on their ecological work at semester’s end, travel to various stations along the river to measure salinity levels, plant nutrients and how far light travels below the water’s surface, among other factors crucial to the river’s welfare. They also plant vegetation along the riverbanks to prevent erosion. Floating sediment, eroded from the riverbanks, can clog the gills of oysters and shellfish.
The tidal stations are sampled twice a month and watershed stations on a monthly basis. Watershed stations are where the river shoots off into tinier creeks, and tidal stations are areas closer to larger bodies of water affected by tides.
The river, an integral cog in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, teems with blue crabs, sea horses and striped bass, among dozens of indigenous life forms.

The project’s initial results on the health of the river are encouraging.
The river has produced a more than tenfold increase in the amount of submerged aquatic vegetation, or SAVs, living in its waters during the past few years, Mr. Tanner says.
“The water quality here is generally good,” he says. “It’s good for sea grasses. They’re making a comeback.”
Researchers registered low oxygen levels last spring, though, which could impede further vegetation growth.
Mr. Paul says any changes to the waterways are “slow and gradual. That’s why it’s hard to detect it. It’s insidious.”
One reason to cast a watchful eye on the ecosystem is the rampant development along the water banks.
“When we came here, there was one stoplight,” Mr. Tanner says of the locale, which features a bristling, though modest, patchwork of new homes and businesses.
Development affects nearby bodies of water in subtle ways.
The amount of paved, impervious surfaces influences the water quality, Mr. Tanner says. Rainwater can run off paved surfaces and eventually toward the river, carrying soil along with it. More porous surfaces, such as gravel-lined paths, allow rainwater to soak into the ground. If rain levels are high in the future, the river’s health could worsen.

On a recent survey of 11 river stations, a small crew aboard the project’s 25-foot-long boat bundled themselves up against the fall chill.
Researchers leaned over the boat’s side to scoop up river water for sampling once the boat anchored at each predetermined location.
Meanwhile, Mr. Tanner lowered a sonde multiparameter device into the water opposite the student workers. The torpedo-shaped instrument, one of the few high-tech items aboard the craft, measures everything from chlorophyll levels to turbidity, or how clear the waters are. The latter determines how deep light can travel in the water and therefore how deep plant life can bloom.
Several students measured nutrient levels by hand, using a tiny hand-powered vacuum device that sucks 6 ounces of river water through a filter that captures amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and chlorophyll. The wafer-thin filters are then wrapped delicately in tinfoil, using tweezers to make sure they aren’t damaged, and sealed for later study.

Stacy Jane Sanders, a 19-year-old sophomore, began as a volunteer with the river project last spring.
“It has given me a perspective on what it would be like to work in the environmental field,” Miss Sanders says.
As part of her duties, she weighed filters full of sediment and sampled water from various stations. She has written about her work for a college newsletter.
Miss Sanders also used electroshock techniques to monitor the number of fish swimming in certain parts of the river. She and four colleagues charged 25-foot sections of the river with electricity, which stunned the fish long enough for them to float to the surface and be counted.
“I got tons of experience; that was the best part of it,” she says.
It also gave her a stark glimpse of life post-college, warts and all.
“It was a big deal to realize I’m not going to love every single second of my job,” Miss Sanders says. “It wasn’t what I expected. There is a lot of monotony to things that was the realization I had to come to.”
Freshman Greg Auerweck, 17, says he joined the program to expand his educational horizons.
“I was using this to see if biology was something I want to do as a career,” he says. His experiences so far have told him such a profession might not be a perfect fit, but, he says, “I still value the experience.”
Mr. Auerweck particularly relishes working with children. He is part of an outreach program in which the college’s students visit area elementary schools to share with them what they learn about the river and its ecosystem.
“They seem very enthusiastic. That may be an understatement,” he says, a sly smile creeping across his lips.
Mr. Tanner says the outreach program has several benefits for the elementary school students. “It educates them and gives them a sense of stewardship,” he says.
Jennifer Gilman, principal at nearby Hollywood Elementary School, whose students conduct environmental projects along the river, says such lessons can indirectly impact the environment.
“The kids take the knowledge back to the parents, and it disperses through the community,” says Ms. Gilman, who previously worked with the State Education and Environment Roundtable, a 12-state consortium that uses environmental studies to improve educational work in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Mr. Tanner says a number of the St. Mary’s College students who have participated in the project have gone on to land internships with the Chesapeake Bay Program, a watershed-restoration project.
The project has funding through 2003, but project directors see it as an ongoing mission to ensure the vitality of the historic river. Mr. Tanner wants the program to become a permanent water-monitoring program to ensure the river’s vitality.
“You can’t do this for one year and then stop,” he says.

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