When UW-Eau Claire researchers present their study on the quality of surface and groundwater in western Wisconsin this month in Washington, D.C., they will be doing much more than simply sharing data with legislators.
They will be highlighting the critical role a public regional university can play in Wisconsin’s economic development and resource management.
“The students are all fired up about being part of this because it's a chance to show the societal implications of their work,” says Dr. J. Brian Mahoney, professor of geology.
The research team, which includes faculty and students from geology and materials science and engineering, is gathering data that will help the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources establish reasonable and responsible regulations for the silica sand mining industry.
“The public wants a clean environment and industry wants reasonable regulations,” Mahoney says. “We are helping the DNR establish regulations that will facilitate economic growth and sustainable development of the silica sand industry, while safeguarding water resources and public health in western Wisconsin.”
It also is training students — the next generation of scientists and industry leaders — to think more broadly about the needs of both the public and industry, Mahoney says.
The Blugolds will present their research at the Posters on the Hill event in Washington, D.C. The UW-Eau Claire project is one of 60 selected from across the nation to be part of the April 26 event, organized by the Council on Undergraduate Research.
Having opportunities as an undergraduate to present her research in professional settings, like the one in the nation’s capital, adds even more value to her already excellent research experiences, says Carly Mueller, a geology major from Andover, Minnesota.
“This conference, in particular, gives me the opportunity to speak with my representatives and see the integration of policy and research, as well as getting to see what other undergraduate research is being done,” Mueller says.
When the Wisconsin DNR came out with proposed water quality regulations on silica sand operations in the state, Mahoney was not surprised.
After all, at the time, the industry was rapidly expanding in the state, and public concern about the potential environmental impact to surface water and groundwater was growing.
Still, as Mahoney reviewed the proposed regulations, he was surprised by what he found.
“A lot of it just didn’t make sense,” Mahoney says. “Some of the proposed regulations really did seem onerous for industry.”
He quickly figured out the problem.
The proposed regulations were to address the public’s concerns about the mining industry’s environmental impact, including whether trace metals in the mined rock and waste materials could leach into surface water or groundwater, but the DNR had no data detailing the makeup of natural waters in western Wisconsin, Mahoney says.
“There is no baseline for water quality standards,” Mahoney says. “Without the baseline, and with sand mining happening around our region, there is no way to determine what the quality of the water will be before and after mining operations.”
Recognizing that this baseline data was critical and that the DNR did not have the resources to conduct the research, Mahoney decided to develop a research project to document the natural concentration and mobility of trace elements in the water, a critical first step in developing environmental safeguards.
“We are setting a baseline for the water chemistry of western Wisconsin, which needs to be in place before mining regulations can be mandated,” Mahoney says.
Now at the halfway point of its study, the team’s preliminary findings show that water in western Wisconsin is “pretty darn clean,” Mahoney says of the study area that ranges from Wausau to the Mississippi River and from Barron in the north to Tomah in the south.
Initial results suggest surface water and groundwater in the region contain relatively low values of most trace metals, typically well below state and federal drinking water standards, he says.
“We’re finding very low values of naturally occurring trace metals,” Mahoney says of samples from regional rivers and dozens of municipal wells in the region. “There’s not a lot of material coming off the rock, getting into the groundwater.”
They did find areas where phosphorus concentrations in surface water frequently exceed Wisconsin’s surface water quality standards, but the cause likely is agricultural, he says, adding that the team will continue its phosphorus study.
Knowing the water chemistry throughout the region will allow the DNR to tailor its rules and regulations depending on a specific area’s geological makeup, Mahoney says.
For example, different testing could be required of mining companies in central Wisconsin where there are large amounts of granite than would be required of mining companies in the western part of the region where limestone is common, Mahoney says.
DNR officials are excited about the data UW-Eau Claire is providing, and the response from state leaders has been positive, Mahoney says.
When researchers presented their work last spring at the Posters in the Rotunda event in Madison, state legislators were so impressed that many suggested the team replicate the study throughout Wisconsin, something Mahoney says he is willing to do if monies are provided to support the work.
In addition to helping meet the needs of the state, the research also is giving Mueller a feel for the hydrogeology field, a field that she is considering as a potential career path.
“It’s research with real-world applications within an industry I am learning about in my hydrogeology curriculum,” Mueller says. “As the project continues to grow, we are bringing our findings to conferences and presenting to people actually working in the industry. These are the kinds of experiences I cannot get in the classroom.”
Her experiences with correct sampling procedures, presenting information and working with real data already have helped her land an internship at Rio Tinto, a global mining company, Mueller says. She will spend the summer as an environmental intern at a major borax mine in California, where she will investigate bioremediation techniques designed to increase process efficiency.
Her research experiences at UW-Eau Claire have given her confidence that she has the skills and knowledge to be successful in the internship, she says.
While only in her second year as a Blugold, Mueller already is involved with research projects.
“Research during my college experience is pushing me to learn science by doing science instead of just learning information to get a grade,” Mueller says. “I do not think my college experience would be as rewarding as it has been had I not gotten involved with collaborative research with Dr. Mahoney.”
The UW-Eau Claire research team includes Mahoney; Mueller; Melissa Hackenmueller, a geology hydrology major from Albertville, Minnesota; Adam Wiest, a geology major from Green Bay; Derek Lindquist, an engineering and geology major from Ramsey, Minnesota; Samantha Bartnik, who earned a geology degree in 2016; Dr. Laurel McEllistrem, a staff scientist in materials science and engineering; and Dr. Stephen Sellwood, an associate lecturer of geology.
Dr. Karen Havholm, assistant vice chancellor for research and director of the Center of Excellence for Faculty/Student Research Collaboration, will accompany the research team when it presents its findings in Washington, D.C.
Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire student researchers Samantha Bartnik and Adam Wiest gather water samples from the Chippewa River.