An Open Book
On a crystalline late-autumn day, Foreman’s Branch shines like mica, its surface ruffled only by the fussing of geese. It’s a quintessentially beautiful scene at Washington College’s Chester River Field Research Station at Chino Farms, but what’s under the surface is what interests Dan Chilton ’13 and Dr. Doug Levin. The two are fiddling with a bank of sensors situated about 50 feet from the creek’s edge. Using water drawn through underground pipes, these sensors are beginning to take the pulse of Foreman’s Branch at Chino Farms, providing data that will initiate what Levin hopes will be a one-of-a-kind laboratory.
“What if you can get a 12-year data set, gathered by a kid who started collecting environmental data on the Chesapeake Bay in kindergarten and continues all the way through senior year?” says Levin, the associate director of the College’s Center for Environment & Society (CES). “When they graduate, they will have 12 years’ worth of data they’re personally responsible for, collected from their back yard. And what’s the likelihood that kid’s going to maintain that connection to the Bay and understand what’s going on in the Bay? It’s pretty high. So here we are, the Chester River Watershed Observatory.”
That’s his nutshell vision for the CRWO, which he says could become a national model for watershed monitoring. By installing a variety of data buoys and sensors from the Chester’s headwaters near Millington to its mouth at Love Point, and tapping the potential of thousands of local school students and teachers, the CRWO intends to make the Chester the best understood river in the country, from sediment mapping to nutrient management, weather studies, fisheries research, and land-use modeling. The collaborative effort is drawing on brains, funds, and expertise from a broad spectrum, including: John Seidel and Levin of the CES, who do underwater mapping, and the GIS program, directed by Stewart Bruce, that provides the web platform to house and access the data; the College’s environmental sciences and biology faculty; federal partners such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey; the Maryland State Department of Education; and neighboring institutions like the University of Maryland, University of Delaware, and Rutgers University.
Today, though, there’s a more immediate challenge; the sensor for conductivity and temperature (which will give salinity measurements) isn’t working. It’s jammed with sediment. “All right, Dan,” Levin says, as he pulls out part of the sensor and wipes it clean, “this is your senior thesis. You wanted a field thesis; get your hands dirty. It’s the best way to learn.”
This particular sensor—with a $150,000 price tag—came from the Hach Company, which specializes in high-tech water monitoring gear. After 30 days, Levin says, “it learns what normal means” for this particular piece of creek—normal PH, salinity, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, phosphate, and nitrogen levels. Whenever something happens that throws “normal” out of whack—like a nitrogen spike due to fertilizer runoff—the system will alert Levin to advise him of its status. Chilton, who’s an environmental studies major with minors in biology and philosophy, is writing his thesis on nutrient tracking in the watershed, and this new sensor is his project. Via a modem connected to the system, he’ll be able to monitor everything it’s reporting from a computer on campus.
Levin figures it will take about two years for the entire system of buoys and sensors to be put in place. Today is the beginning. The observatory, he says, will be a hands-on laboratory that will compel all students in the watershed to become part of the Chester River’s narrative. “The best way to teach,” he says, “is to have a story to tell.”