University of Vermont

Liz Bennett Researches Suspended Solids in Vermont Rivers

Ungraduate student internship

Liz Bennett at a sampling site in North Troy, VT.  Photo by Katie Chang
Liz Bennett at a sampling site in North Troy, VT. Photo by Katie Chang

This summer, I worked as an intern with Vermont’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) on their Research Adaptation to Climate Change (RACC) Program. Vermont EPSCoR is a branch of the National Science Foundation. RACC is a five-year study that seeks to gather data about how climate change and severe storm events currently impact the Lake Champlain basin, develop a model to predict how climate change will impact the basin as climate change progresses, and ultimately produce an adaptive management strategy for local and state governments to minimize the impact of climate change on the basin. The study, which is in its first year, involves faculty and students at the University of Vermont, Johnson State College, Middlebury College, and Saint Michael’s College.

I worked in RACC’s Water Quality Laboratory at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, VT, along with two other undergraduate interns, under Katie Chang, the laboratory’s research technician. Our laboratory researched the amount of total suspended solids (TSS) in the streams of the Missisquoi and Winooski River watersheds, both of which ultimately drain to Lake Champlain. Total suspended solids includes those solids that are too large to pass through a filter and is generally believed to increase with significant precipitation events, which erode loose sediment into streams. It is also a widely used parameter of stream health; high TSS levels indicate that a stream’s banks erode relatively easily and therefore may lack an adequate riparian zone. Suspended solids can also block sunlight from entering a stream, which prevents aquatic plants from photosynthesizing and harms aquatic fauna.

Our laboratory team collected samples from streams throughout the Missisquoi and Winooski watersheds and compared baseline TSS levels to TSS levels after storm events. We used both manually obtained samples and samples taken with automatic samplers, which we installed at U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gauging stations with the help of USGS hydrologic technicians. These samplers consist of piping that extends from the stream up to the USGS gauging station, where one-liter bottles are stored to contain the samples once they are drawn up the piping. Once we collected these samples, we ran them through a filter in our laboratory to determine the TSS concentration. RACC researchers in subsequent stages of the study will compare the TSS baseline data to TSS event data to determine the severity of TSS level increase with storms of varying intensities.

In addition to installing the samplers, collecting and running the samples, and compiling the data, I also worked with high school students and teachers who are part of the RACC Program. These high school teams, which hailed from schools all over Vermont, stayed at the Saint Michael’s campus for one week as we instructed them on how to collect various stream quality data at sites near their schools.  Along with my coworkers, I instructed the high school teams on how to determine stream quality parameters such as stream height, discharge, and TSS. Coordinating these demonstrations and organizing the thousands of dollars-worth of equipment being distributed to the high school teams was a time and work intensive portion of my internship.

The most rewarding part of my internship with RACC was the opportunity to design my own study with the data we collected for the larger program. My coworker, Courtney Pinto, and I decided to compare the respective baseline and event TSS levels of agricultural and urban streams. We performed a statistical analysis of our results, which we plan to present at the RACC symposium in April 2013. Through my internship with RACC, I gained experience conducting research and applying and building on the chemistry, ecology and statistical skills I have gained through my coursework at UVM.  The experience was helpful as I explore potential career paths in the realm of environmental science.