By Joshua Brown Article published June 27, 2007
From a canoe in the Winooski River, Paul Bierman, professor of geology, is trying to impress a practical truth upon eight undergraduates paddling nearby. He points up a fifty-foot-high mud-and-rock embankment that rises from the river’s edge. The students — the first participants in a new UVM Watershed Field Camp — crane their necks to look at several tidy bungalows perched at the top.
“The view might be great up there,” he says, “but it’s not a stable place to build a house.”
“It pays to know a little geology,” he says, describing how the sediment in the embankment may have been laid down as saltwater deposits 11,000 years ago when the Champlain Sea covered this whole area — and how those same sediments are now relentlessly eroding with each passing swash of riverwater. “But geology and hydrology are only part of the picture in making sense of this place,” he says, “there is a human factor here that you have to deal with.”
That is, if you’re going to have an integrated understanding of what’s going on in this watershed. Which is exactly the point of the camp, an intensive four weeks of measuring, mapping and monitoring that started on the slopes of Mount Mansfield and followed the changing pitch, rock types, natural communities, and human uses of the Winooski from its headwaters down to its yawning mouth at Lake Champlain.
For decades, geology students earned their skills in the traditional “hard rock” geology field camp: a summer’s worth of tramping about with a hammer learning how bedrock was built. And for decades, until the 1980s, about half of all geology graduates and other “geoscientists” got jobs in the oil and gas business. Field camp was a great preparation for oil prospecting.
Today, the petroleum industry hires less than 8 percent of all geoscientists. Now many jobs are in environmental problem solving, with one area of pressing importance in water resources. Hydrogeology, aqueous geochemistry and groundwater are some of the most popular courses being offered in geoscience programs across the country, while hard rock field camps are falling on hard times.
Instead of ditching the traditional field camp, Bierman and his colleagues — engineer Donna Rizzo, geographer Beverly Wemple, geochemist Greg Druschel, lake ecologist Mary Watzin, plus the course’s organizer, Andrea Pearce, a Ph.D. student studying geochemistry and engineering — have updated it to meet these new needs and trends.
“Typically the study of watersheds and the training of watershed-science students and educators are fragmented,” Bierman wrote in the application for the National Science Foundation grant that is supporting this camp, “with geologists addressing erosion, hydrologists gathering flow data, ecologists monitoring communities and engineers designing remediation strategies.”
But 30 years of environmental policymaking since the Clean Water Act make it clear that solutions to watershed problems often require more than these forms of expertise — they require an integration of information from across disciplines. For example, which discipline is best equipped to explain and respond to vacation houses that may soon tip into a river?
Roots and Routes
The spirit of the new camp might be summarized like this: a watershed doesn’t care one whit about your disciplinary specialization. A watershed is a reality of nature and a fundamental unit of human life, a place where water and gravity, wildlife and people, forests and settlements, contaminants and sediments — all converge with an intricate messiness. A raindrop flows from mountaintop to the sea, joining a swirling mass of complexity that overwashes the boundaries of chemistry, geology, geography, hydrology, ecology and engineering.
So this experimental three-credit course was organized around a set of broad, interdisciplinary questions: What makes a mountain watershed unique? What creates ecological health in a stream? How do stream and river channels change over time? How does Lake Champlain reflect its watershed?
Each week, from May 21 until June 15, 2007, the students — some in environmental studies, some in civil engineering, one in mechanical engineering, one in sustainable agriculture, one studying environmental conflict resolution — spent several days gathering field data in streams, forests, on the UVM lake research boat, or floating in plastic canoes on the meandering bottom reaches of the river itself.
For these students, an understanding of specific problems, like what makes a riverbank fail, began not with a textbook, but in the field, observing. “Notice the undercut banks here,” Bierman tells them, “but do you see the same thing over there, where the riparian forest is growing?”
This field trip led back to the classroom, where the students pored over aerial photographs that document the Winooski’s ever-shifting riverbed through the years. Then they headed into an on-campus hydraulics lab to explore how much bank strength is created by tree roots.
Fields of data
“There are a lot of engineers that get pumped out of school into environmental companies that don’t have true field experience,” Donna Rizzo says, as the camp members sit around on the grass near the canoe take-out, eating lunch. “That’s a problem,” she says, noting how much slop and uncertainty there can be in even the most scrupulously gathered field data, and how easy it is to make precise calculations from imprecise information — with the risk of being entirely precise and entirely wrong.
“I’ve developed a huge appreciation for the difference between collecting data and analyzing data,” Rizzo says. Beverly Wemple agrees. “Students only get that by having to collect field data themselves,” she says.
Bierman and his team hope that this camp will spawn others like it across the country. “The richest thing may be getting to know the other faculty better,” he says. “We often research together, but how much teaching do we do across departments? This camp has really pushed us all to examine what interdisciplinary work really means. It’s not always easy, but that’s the point.”
Mark Suozzo, a junior civil engineering major who is applying for an internship in an environmental engineering company this year, seems to value the camp too. “We’ve done a lot of canoeing and we haven’t seen any catamounts yet,” he says with a smile, “but this is really neat. I’m getting a feeling for the whole river.”
For more photos related to this story, visit the view's Flickr page.