Testing the Waters: Can You Involove Community Action in Your College Curriculum?

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The Maury River Alliance (MRA) was developed at Washington and Lee University (W&L) as a cooperative program involving local colleges, high schools, government agencies, and conservation groups. The MRA is a mostly volunteer organization (42 volunteers currently) that samples the Maury River and its tributaries, including the urban stream flowing through campus. Its purpose is both to serve the community and to provide students and faculty with research opportunities. We are addressing the connection between land use and water quality with a creative merging of technical, social and educational aspects of local watershed management.

During the first year and a half of the program we have developed a baseline water quality for low flow conditions. We have observed that water quality degrades as the river passes through the county, especially with the addition of urban and agricultural tributaries. Nutrients and bacteria are of greatest concern, with storm water high in heavy metal concentrations.

In addition to exposing students to a community effort, the ultimate interest for the faculty is to focus on the scientific results. The proximity of the study site to the school and the large numbers of volunteers involved in the project contribute to the success of the project. These numbers facilitate the collection of large data sets and a plethora of research possibilities yet also present a challenge of organization and management. While professors focus on data analysis, students (and now a recent graduate as director) have acted as managers of the program, thus furthering the educational opportunities.

Keywords: Education - undergraduate; geochemistry; hydrogeology and hydrology.

INTRODUCTION

Balancing and integrating research and education is an ongoing challenge for university faculty. For us at Washington and Lee University (in Lexington, Virginia), the nexus among students, society, and science in learning about the state of the local Maury River watershed has developed some fascinating and certainly unprecedented synergisms. Perhaps this was foreshadowed in the way in which the project was first conceptualized. The Maury River Alliance (MRA) was the brainchild of a member of the Lexington community, who brought it to Washington and Lee (W&L) and the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). The project then seemed to take on a life of its own, developing into its current structure as a coalition between not only these two educational institutions, but also the Rockbridge County Planning Department, the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, the Virginia Izaak Walton League Save Our Streams Program, the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society, the City of Lexington, and the County of Rockbridge. It is the diverse nature of its participants that is perhaps the most unique component of this water-quality monitoring organization, demanding collaboration, communication, and camaraderie among all, inspiring a respect for differing approaches, and stimulating student initiatives and interest in scientific endeavors in conjunction with societal needs.

The Maury River is a scenic James River headwater stream and is therefore also a part of the threatened and intensely managed Chesapeake Bay watershed. The James River "tributary strategy" developed in response to the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1985 seeks to reduce sediment and nutrient loads from this major bay tributary (Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, 2000). The Maury River Basin spans most of Rockbridge County, and extends into Bath and Augusta Counties of southwestern Virginia. The drainage area above the city of Buena Vista is 646 square miles, and land use in the county is a melange of agriculture and light industry or urban areas against a rugged, forested topography (Figure 1A).

Woods Creek, a major tributary ot the Maury Kiver, is one of the more intensively agricultural and developed sub-basins in the watershed. …