Students Soak Up Science

Over the last year, students in areas of study as wide ranging as fine arts, biology, sociology and environmental studies have been working together to study water. From the water that runs through the fountains on campus, to the Gunk ponds that cut across it and the aquifers and buried streams that flow under New Paltz’s streets — all of this makes up the local watershed — the Saw Mill Brook.

SUNY New Paltz students, faculty and staff involved in the project presented their work Wednesday in Lecture Center (LC) 100 at a symposium organized by the Center for Regional, Research, Education and Outreach (CRREO).

“No matter who you are or where you are everyone lives in a watershed, everyone works in a watershed,” Emily Vail of the Hudson River Estuary Program said. “It’s important to think about the larger context of what we’re doing here.”

In partnership with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Hudson River Estuary Program and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, SUNY New Paltz and CRREO-led the effort as a way to improve water quality in the Saw Mill Brook and address climate change.

Some students, like Ana Rivera, a third-year early childhood education major, worked on gathering data from the field about how different types of construction materials used on campus affect how water drains into the ground.

“The relatively high level of vegetation on campus is one thing we have going for us,” Rivera said.

Rivera used a tool called an infiltrometer, a piece of tubing that is placed in the ground and filled with water. The amount of water that seeps into the ground over time gets measured.

“If you’re an ecologist, half of your tools are made of PVC and duct tape,” Biology Professor David Richardson said.

That vegetation and newly implemented solutions like permeable asphalt allow water to be filtered of pollutants as it slowly drains underground rather than running off into local streams or overloading sewage treatment plants.

But Rivera’s data showed that if all of the campus’ blacktop was converted to permeable asphalt, three times as much water would get absorbed.

Another project surveyed facilities managers at different SUNY campuses to see how they were dealing with storm water issues.

Brian Obach, chair of the sociology department, said that storm water runoff – which causes flooding and pollution – is a problem at almost every SUNY campus and millions of dollars have been spent to mitigate it.

The survey found that many campuses are only taking “reactive, partial measures” in that respect.

“They don’t really do what we need to be doing as a society: getting a handle on what we’re going to be experiencing and planning for those experiences,” Obach said, though he acknowledged that New Paltz is doing better than most SUNYs.

KT Tobin, assistant director of CRREO and professor of sociology, said that through the process of daylighting, or uncovering a buried stream that runs under Plattekill Avenue in front of Village Hall – a project that the college and the village collaborated on – she learned that an “amazing amount of water” was buried under pavement as development in the area accelerated over the last 50 years.

“When we were building and burying water, we were also moving the water,” Tobin said.
Tobin’s students put together a survey of 376 students on water bottle use on campus. Of those surveyed, 45 percent — a plurality — supported a ban.

Fine arts professor Matthew Friday described one project where master’s students in arts and education from New Paltz worked with high school students in Poughkeepsie to explore an impaired, or polluted, waterway in the city.

Friday said that in addition to focusing on ways to cut down on pollution and diminish harmful impacts on the environment, his goal was to facilitate positive interactions between students and the local ecology. To do this, he used poetry and environmental art work alongside more traditional scientific materials.

The project was designed “to find a way to be sensitized, experience, take joy and pleasure in engagement with ecology, and learn to rely on it,” Friday said.

To illustrate how the idea of interdependence can transform people’s perceptions of the local environment, students created a ‘foraged salad’ from ingredients found in the watershed.

“Students were excited about the possibility of foraging,” Friday said. “And most ended up eating it.”

The salad contained sorrel, wild grape leaves, clover, dandelions, wild lettuce, wild onions and a dressing of locally sourced apple vinegar, olive oil, honey and sea salt.