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 Montpelier Magazine

Top left: Chemistry professor Dan Downey has monitored the effects of acid rain in St. Mary's watershed for 15 years. Top right:Environmental microbiologist James Herrick studies bacteria to determine whether waterways are carrying genes with resistance to antibiotics. Bottom left: His research into the prehistoric water levels of the Great Lakes gives geology professor Steve Baedke the long-term view on water quality and climate change. Bottom right: Biology professor Bruce Wiggins has devised a method for determining the source of fecal contaminants in waterways.

The Worth of Water

With the power both to awe and frighten, to sustain and destroy, it is no wonder that water has been worshipped in ceremony by primitive societies and lauded in poetry by sophisticated ones. That amorphous compound of hydrogen and oxygen covers three-fourths of the Earth and comprises two-thirds of our bodies. It is one of the most critical elements we seek as an indicator of the possibility of life on other planets. As JMU scientists show us, however, the water that courses through their research and our faucets is not invulnerable, nor is it unlimited.

ON A BREEZY SEPTEMBER AFTERNOON, Dan Downey treks through the George Washington National Forest to gather water samples at Little Stony Creek, which he monitors for the National Forest Service. As he heads toward the first test site upstream, his radio crackles with surprising news: It has vanished - dried up, his students report.

"There's no water at all?" he asks into the walkie-talkie.

"No," comes the reply.

"That's the first time I've ever seen that," Downey says, squinting into the sunlight that streams through the openings in the canopy of oak and hemlock overhead. The JMU chemistry professor knows this forest and its waterways well. He has hiked into it for 15 years with his students - some of whom still come back as alumni - to moni-tor the acidity of the watershed. One of the several water chemistry issues that consumes his scholarly attention is acid rain and its effects on surrounding ecosystems. Back in the 1980s, the forest service and fishermen, (Downey among them) noticed that trout and other wildlife were no longer thriving in these waterways and streams. They traced the cause to increasing acidity - stemming from the acid rain from industrial cities and vehicle exhaust - which was no longer being neutralized naturally through the decomposition of the underlying geology.

Downey intervened with a process to add lime to mountain streams. To obtain official approval to try this controversial human alteration of a natural habitat, Downey agreed to monitor and test the streams along with the forest service. He and succeeding years of student researchers have continued to do so since then. Time has brought success: Trout and other forms of life are making a comeback.

Today's dried-up test site, however, means a severe four-year drought in the East has reached into Downey's already acid-sensitive habitat, changing the water chemistry obviously, but, more significantly, pointing out, in a kind of one-two punch, the vulnerability of water and its value.

Geology graduate Matt Heller ('92) sums it up with a quote from that American master of truisms, Benjamin Franklin: "When the well's dry, we know the worth of water."

The worth of water is difficult to quantify, says economics professor Scott Milliman. "In actual 'use value', water would be worth more than diamonds," he says. But in the real world, a diamond/water paradox exists where a nonessential such as a gemstone is far more valuable than a life necessity such as water.

Ironically, Milliman says, "The value of water is infinite." The wet compound of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen that courses through the research of JMU scientists surges from mountain headwaters and underground springs and teems through watersheds, miles of rivers and bedrock into bays and oceans, all the while evaporating and beginning the cycle again as rain. Man has intervened to redirect vast quantities to flow into the arteries of our cities and towns, into the pipelines of factories and into the faucets of our homes. Bottling plant companies pump it from springs and lakes to market it to us, plain or sparkling, for sports, fitness, health, status - profit. We drink it. We bathe in it. We swim in it. We clean with it, and we cook with it. We live with it and die without it. It is a part of us - two-thirds of our bodies and three-fourths of our planet.

Nothing else, JMU scientists would agree, is worth more. But, as Downey's test site shows, while water is ubiquitous, it is not everywhere. The research and work of JMU professors, their student researchers and alumni experts underscore the frailty of the element that holds the power of hurricanes, floods, mudslides, tides and torrential rains.

"I think that as a society we are beginning to realize the vulnerability and value of water," says Sandra Talarovich Mueller ('96), Department of Environmental Quality regional TMDL coordinator for the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. "As we all begin to understand the value and vulnerability of water, I believe we will learn how to balance development and natural resource conservation; that these two can go hand-in-hand to produce a healthier environment and a more desirable community."

Heller, regional supervisor for the Groundwater Section of the North Carolina Division of Water Quality, has seen the drought bring awareness of water problems in North Carolina, but he said there are equally pressing issues. "Beyond the current drought," says Heller, "I think that the most pressing water issues in the United States in the future will relate to nonpoint source pollution. Many of the big pollution sources in the past ... have been largely addressed. What has not been addressed is the multitude of small sources of pollution that result from our citizens making poor decisions. These decisions include putting too much fertilizer on lawns, overzealously applying pesticides and herbicides, improperly abandoning old wells and disposing of spent fuel and chemicals into the ground. Worldwide, certainly, the biggest issue will be locating and providing water of sufficient quality and quantity."

Heller focuses on underground water in the Charlotte area. Groundwater comprises 95 percent of all available freshwater in the world, he says, so it's a concern for most localities. "About half of the people living in our region rely upon groundwater for their primary water supply," he says. "Most people don't realize that, in addition to being a drinking water source, groundwater typically contributes about two-thirds of the water that we can see flowing in our rivers and streams."

Caroline Silvers ('80), who works with a Florida water management district, says her state is facing severe, but rarely visible, shortages. While Florida is literally surrounded by water and filled with lakes and streams, it is the groundwater that fills the public's needs. "The problem here in Florida is they can't see the water issues because they're subterranean," she says. The need is great. "It's growing faster than we can meet the water supply demands," Silvers says. "The cost of water is going up dramatically," she says, while historically "it's basically been a freebie." Silvers works to prevent saltwater intrusion into public water systems. The public in some places is taking out more water than the aquifer can produce without saltwater seeping into the void. Because of the high demand in Florida, all water is recycled, Silvers says. Golf courses are irrigated with wastewater that has been cleaned to nondrinking standards.

Brett Moody ('01), a chemist for the Washington Aqueduct in Washington, D.C., spends his time analyzing the human impact on the district's water source. "We collect and analyze numerous water samples from all over these areas on a daily basis. I analyze samples for turbidity, fluoride and conductivity," Moody says. "Turbidity is the amount of particulate matter found in a sample. I analyze it to make sure that the majority of sediment has been removed."

Fed by the Potomac River, the aqueduct was built in 1853 by the Army Corps of Engineers. It is the only federally owned drinking water facility in the United States. Moody says some of the contaminants they must watch for in drinking water include arsenic, which is a major issue in the Midwest, trace amounts of pharmaceuticals such as caffeine and hormones, coliform, toxins produced by algae and disinfectant byproducts.

In an ironic twist, even pollution has become a tool for researchers concerned with the environment. Concerned about the in-creasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics, JMU environmental microbiologist and biology professor Jim Herrick is looking at waterways as carriers and reservoirs of antibiotic resistance. Herrick suspects that resistant genes are getting into the natural environment through contamination with resistant fecal bacteria and furthering the resistance of native bacteria. "I'm working on streams because streams tend to collect fecal matter," says Herrick, who is concerned over the effects of agricultural use of antibiotics in livestock and crops. The professor captures antibiotic-resistant genes from uncultivated bacteria in streams. Using this method, Herrick has found that genes causing resistance to many antibiotics, like tetracycline, streptomycin and gentamycin, are common in the area's native stream bacteria. These genes may originate in fecal bacteria.

JMU microbiologist and biology professor Bruce Wiggins has devised a way to determine the source of fecal contamination found in Virginia waterways. He sees nonpoint source pollution as a great concern nationwide - and so does the Environmental Protection Agency. Governmental agencies have been tasked by the Clean Water Act to assign a measure called the TMDL (total maximum daily load), which is the amount of pollution that cannot be exceeded per day for a given stream, by 2010. In order to assign a TMDL, the state agency must understand many factors around the watershed, including its sources of pollution. It may be cattle or sheep getting into a stream that should be fenced off or a failing septic system that is causing the pollution. With miles and miles of fresh waterways to examine, there is no way to know the source of the pollution without a few clues. A river that flows hundreds of miles comes into contact with farms, subdivisions and wildlife along its course.

"Indicator bacteria (bacteria that indicate fecal matter is in water) work pretty well to tell you how much pollution there is, but they don't tell you where the pollution is coming from," Wiggins says. Half of all streams that are polluted are contaminated because of fecal matter, according to the biology professor. Therefore, his model for using antibiotic resistance in different bacteria to determine whether the source of the bacteria is livestock, wildlife or human has attracted great attention. "The demand for (information on contamination) is exceeding the science of it in some ways," Wiggins says.

Mueller says that Wiggins' method is popular because it is relatively inexpensive, yet quite effective. "It's really getting nationwide recognition," she says.

One of Mueller's responsibilities is promoting public awareness about water quality impairments in Virginia. "In order for [efforts] to be successful, the public has to be involved." Some of the steps Mueller encourages the public to take to reduce pollution include proper septic system maintenance, good agricultural practices, greenways around water sources and fencing livestock out of waterways. "It's a great opportunity for people in the watershed to make a difference without the state of Virginia saying you have to put up fences," she says.

A project by senior Kai Degner gives the public as well as scientists and government access to water quality data from the 3,055 square miles of the Shenandoah River watershed. His honors ISAT thesis takes data from six years' worth of water samples and presents it spatially on the Web using geographic information systems, or GIS.

"Think of GIS as a collection of layers of a map, like transparencies on an overhead projector," Degner explains, "layers like roads, rivers, elevation, crops, demographics."

Until his internship last summer at the nonprofit Canaan Valley Institute, the twice-monthly water samples taken for six years by the Friends of the Shenandoah River were consigned to a database of nitrate/ nitrite, ammonia, orthophosphate, oxygen, pH, turbidity, temperature and site observation readings. Degner digitally mapped the 183 sampling sites in the watershed - "the absolute locations where the volunteers actually put their feet in the water." Then he created the GIS layers, converted the water quality database for GIS and generated the drainage area information for each sampling point.

"What I've done is provide meaningful access to that data and allow for spatial analysis," he says. "GIS is so exciting. You can customize your queries on any factor or multiple factors."

Degner's final step was to design a Web site incorporating the GIS format. "I designed the prototype, and it's being built by a company now. … The analysis you can do with this is deeply powerful," he says. "It allows you to think critically about water quality. You can ask the technical questions and produce powerful results. Scientists can sit down and do some in-depth analysis.

"As far as I know, never before has there been a [water quality] project with this much data for this big an area for this long a time presented this way," Degner says. And it could get bigger, as future ISAT and GIS students' senior projects incorporate new water data and build new GIS layers, like best management practices or soil types, for instance.

  Degner says his own satisfaction comes from knowing that individuals will be able to go to the Web, find the sampling site nearest them and go to a public meeting - informed.

Public awareness is vital in all areas to maintain clean waterways, Heller says from North Carolina. "Our work group recognizes that the government regulations, while useful, are not going to adequately protect water resources," he says. "It will take the efforts of all citizens to protect them. Since most pollution is caused by lack of understanding rather than a bad intent, we focus a lot on education-outreach type activities."

Which brings up another measure of water's worth. "There's a saying out West," according to JMU chemist Downey: "'Whiskey's for drinking. Water's for fighting over.'" While it has come to that in many of the driest parts of the world, fighting in these more civilized days plays out in politics and regulatory skirmishes involving professionals, researchers, elected officials, multiple regional, state and federal agencies, private developers, and citizen groups.

As Florida's Silvers points out, water is not a resource that respects boundaries or that can be easily contained. It freely spills from one county to another, one state to another, one governmental agency to another. "I deal with one small aspect of it, and there are so many other issues, and they all tie together," she says.

Downey, whose acid rain research crosses political boundaries, has seen how different agencies can work together. The Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries manages wildlife issues, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service manages the land. The experience of working with these different agencies and understanding the interactions can be a good experience for students, who might help analyze 100 streams in a semester, Downey says. "In the acid rain field you don't just work in the lab," he says. "What we have here is university expertise with the political realities of land management and public opinion. ... It's an interesting study of how things get done."

Geology professor Steven J. Baedke, who serves on the State Water Commission's committee that studies Shenandoah Valley groundwater issues, sees how the growth in demand for water is creating the need for greater resource management. "One of the greatest concerns I have is how do we plan for growth around areas we know to be geologically sensitive," he says.

He has seen how people in the valley have stepped up to the challenges of drought. "I'd like to think it's not just imposed awareness," he says. "People hate management because then it becomes regulated. But it's a necessary evil. ... Even though the drought may have lifted this winter, it wouldn't take much to put us back in a deficit."

Baedke brings a historical perspective to the subject. He has been immersed for more than a decade in research that centers on water levels and prehistoric data for the Great Lakes. Each summer, he analyzes ancient geological demarcations and wades up to his chest through wetlands to take samples using a cement vibrator that inserts a long tube into the ground and pulls up cores of soil that are 15 feet deep and that weigh about 10 pounds per foot.

His work with other Great Lakes scientists has revealed water levels that cycle through 30-, 160- and 600-year periods. "The Great Lakes water levels have been much higher and lower in the past 4,200 years than they are now," Baedke says. "This may not be just a Great Lakes phenomenon, but possibly a global climate record."

While using water levels as a barometer for climate change is attracting a lot of attention, so are his day-to-day findings. Calling and e-mailing Baedke are everyone from scientists to government agency officials to real estate developers.

The geology professor also hopes to draw more contemporary conclusions. "The argument right now is whether or not, in addition to this naturally occurring fluctuation, is there impact from human-induced changes in climate?" Baedke posits. "Our work has not been able to answer this question yet, but we are trying to focus on parts of this issue right now."

Ironically, while the Great Lakes and Coastal Susceptibility Study began because the lakes reached all-time recorded highs in 1986 and flooded coastal property around Chicago, last summer the lakes reached all-time lows due to a lack of rain. Both of these conditions make a point: Both show the vulnerabilities of our water supply.

This water supply is increasingly becoming a marketplace. Today, private companies deliver drinking water to the public in 56 countries, according to the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists. Some are calling water the blue petroleum of the future.

Assigning worth to water may help to preserve it, says the College of Business' Milliman, who teaches natural resource economics in his classes. "If you take a resource of significant value and you make it free, you're creating conditions to abuse it," he says. "We don't value that which costs us nothing."

"Although we refer to water as a need, when we look at it we use it sometimes as a luxury," says economics professor William Wood. "The only time the value of water is recognized is when we start coming up short."

Read more about the research of these JMU scientists at

Story by Donna Dunn ('94), Photos by Diane Elliott ('00), Wayne Gehman and Casey Templeton ('06)