|October 14, 1999
Volume 30 Number 5
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Water Quality Research Crosses Oceans
Over the last several decades, the effects of human activity on water quality, especially the effects of agricultural activity, have been of increasing international concern. CSU, Chico's Lee Altier, Agriculture, and Angheluta Vadineanu, a chemist from the University of Bucharest, Romania, received a grant from the Twinning Program of the National Research Council to study the management and water quality functions of riparian ecosystems. The Twinning Program pairs researchers in the United States with their counterparts in other areas of the world. The intent of the program is to build long-term international linkages among scientists, by funding a two-year exchange of ideas.
It's kind of silly, the notion that ecological processes stop at international borders. These processes are fundamental all over the world," said Altier. Because ecological processes cross borders, it only makes sense to develop international research to study them.
Scientists involved in the program spend about a month per year in each other's country as they work on their projects. Carmen Postolache, Department of Systems Ecology and Management of Natural Capital, University of Bucharest, has been in Chico for the past month, working with Altier, who previously spent a month in Romania. While in Chico, Postolache presented her research on sites in the Danube River to the Biology Seminar, and she and Altier presented their collaborative work to the Agricultural Forum.
Postolache explained that the nitrogen input in European rivers is very high. Much of the increase occurred after World War II and is attributable to changes in land use and increased fertilizer use. Nitrogen pollution of surface water frequently occurs when large amounts of animal manure or other fertilizer is used in agricultural practices. In 1996, an international group of scientists gathered to discuss ways of studying buffer zones and their impacts on nitrogen pollution. The Nitrogen Control by Landscape Structures in Agriculture Environments (NICOLAS) came out of this conference.
While farmers can and do provide a variety of methods of handling pollution on their lands, they often cannot avoid the movement of chemicals into the water system, Altier explained. NICOLAS was formed to examine the question, "Can there be landscape structures that are promoted to reduce the off-site pollution?" These buffer zones may include riparian zones, wetlands, and hedgerows.
Interest in buffer zones as a factor in the sustainability of ecosystems is relatively recent. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this was new thinking. Altier said, "It wasn't until the mid-80s that people really started testing, putting out trials, to see if there was a significant pollution reduction through these buffer systems. And sure enough, people started discovering, they can work well." In fact, enough is currently known about these systems that Altier and Postolache can define the characteristics of an ideal buffer zone: a low slope with abundant, vigorous vegetation on land that is not too wet and that allows moderate water movement through the system.
How does a buffer zone work? It can act as a physical barrier, especially in those zones with large amounts of vegetation. "Another important aspect is that vegetation can take up a lot of potential pollutants -- nitrogen, phosphorus, other chemicals -- especially in a big woody biomass of big trees. It gets tied up there for long periods of time," Altier said. "You also get a lot of organic matter deposition and that acts as a substrate for microbial transformations that occur in the soil. The microbes help to mitigate pollutants by getting rid of the nitrogen through denitrification. They can also help to slow down movement of pollutants." If the slope is gentle and the vegetation abundant, the water will move slower, allowing enough time for nitrogen retention and microbial transformation.
The aim of NICOLAS is to evaluate how effectively these areas can buffer nitrogen and reduce the amount of pollution entering aquatic environments. Because there are far too many locations to test, each location has its own idiosyncrasies, and the cost of testing is very high, NICOLAS is working on a Riparian Ecosystem Management Model (REMM). To do this, seven European sites were selected, one each in Great Britain, Poland, Switzerland, France, Spain, Romania, and Italy. The European sites vary by latitude, climate, average annual rainfall, landforms, and type of buffer. Some have meadow and forest buffers, while some have wetlands and forests.
Altier worked on the REMM development team at the United States Department of Agriculture before coming to Chico State, and continues to refine the model. REMM simulates four aspects of riparian ecosystems: hydrology, or the movement of water through the system; nutrient dynamics, or the transformation of chemicals in ecosystems; erosion and sedimentation; and vegetation growth. By being able to predict the behavior of pollutants in riparian ecosystems, REMM will become a valuable tool in managing these systems.
By comparing the extensive measurements taken at the seven European sites with the predictions generated by REMM, Altier and Postalache will be able to validate the model. "So far, the initial results have been very favorable," Altier said, "with the exception of flooding." Flooding in riparian systems comes out of the stream onto the land, and REMM was designed to predict the effects of upland water moving into the stream.
One of the primary challenges for NICOLAS was the development of consistent research protocols. In the past, each country developed its own set of protocols, making comparisons difficult. Altier said, "When we have a group of people like this who represent different disciplines, cultures, countries, and political systems, you can imagine how working together and upgrading our protocols can be very important and critical to the success of the project." It seems to be working, and NICOLAS is beginning to generate and establish worldwide protocols.
Altier enjoys international work. "One of the wonderful things about NICOLAS is that you not only deal with people with different scientific backgrounds and personalities, but also with different cultures, so it's multidimensional." -- BA
Chico | Admissions | Bookstore
| Catalog | Schedule | Library
California State University, Chico
400 West First Street
Chico, CA 95929-0040