Results flow to patient scientists

Federal Workers

August 31, 2007|By Melissa Harris

The federal vans parked outside are not hybrids, nor is the building "Energy Star" green.

But workers at the U.S. Geological Survey's new 23,500-square-foot facility at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County are environmentalists. They're just not the radical, revolutionary kind.

They're the patient kind. They recycle. They understand that it takes decades for the earth to flush out the damage humans have done to it. They regularly take the earth's pulse - one meter reading at a time - and then alert the public to threats to the planet as best they can.

"We do studies over long periods of time that no one else wants to pay for," hydrologist Linda Debrewer, 38, said, then chuckled at the sometimes shaky funding for water science. "Long-term changes have the best impact, rather than short-term fixes. We've proven that over and over again."

Hydrologists, biologists and engineers at the water center have been working on decades-long efforts to reduce excess nitrates in the Chesapeake Bay, keep saltwater out of freshwater fish-spawning areas on the Eastern Shore, clean up marshes at Aberdeen Proving Ground and ensure that Baltimore has adequate, clean drinking water.

Occasionally, solutions come quickly - in a decade or so.

In the 1990s, federal hydrologist Michelle M. Lorah discovered that microorganisms, which aren't visible to the human eye, could break up harmful contaminants seeping into the marshes at Aberdeen. The microbes were present in some parts of the marsh, but not near the sources of the pollution.

Scientists at the center began cultivating the microbes and used thermal imaging to determine where the warm, polluted water was coming out of the ground and into the marsh's cooler surface.

Federal hydrologist Emily H. Majcher figured out how to get the microbes to the water source. She invented a permeable mat filled with microbes, compost, sand and peat, then laid the mats over the holes in the ground from which the water was seeping into the marsh. As water passed through the mat, the microbes would break up the toxic contaminants into safe products.

"My role on the project was to engineer the actual mat and figure out how to put it together and how to deploy it in the field," said Majcher, a Severna Park resident who works for Geosyntec, a private environmental consulting firm in Columbia. "Conceptually, it was Dr. Lorah's idea of let's try to mimic what's going on naturally in the system."

Such rapid solutions are rare.

"We're still seeing banned compounds in groundwater," said Debrewer, who helps oversee the National Water-Quality Assessment, which began in 1991 and involves the systematic collection of water samples from 42 basins nationwide. "We'll sample water out of a well and it'll be 50 to 70 years old. Things change slowly."

Workers are still unpacking at the new center, which they moved into three weeks ago. The stained concrete floors and exposed aluminum rafters create a slick modern look. Black-and-white photos of devastation from floods, raging rivers and water scientists, circa 1900, hang on the walls.

The library shelves are filled with books, some more than 100 years old, that contain chart after chart detailing rivers' water levels and how they changed over a year.

Cell phone service inside the building is spotty, and the warehouse smells a bit of sewage. But scientists love the woods and stream behind the building and plan to install a water gauge there to teach visitors about their work.

Hydrologists at the water science center maintain about 150 gauges in Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia that monitor river levels and the water supply underground, where most Marylanders get their drinking water.

The gauges range from high-tech - measuring water levels around the clock and beaming the readings back to the center - to big, century-old concrete blocks with metal floats inside.

Readings are then shared with 75 federal and local partners, including the National Weather Service, which uses the readings to issue flash flood alerts, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which maps 100-year floodplains.

Scientists at the center watch for records - such as record-low river levels, record-high flash floods and record droughts. Hydrologist Jim Dine, 62, ventures out in brutal storms or down steep ravines to measure high-water marks because scientists and nearby residents need to know how bad conditions can get.

"We try to keep our gauges as reliable and simple as possible," said Daniel J. Soeder, a hydrologist at the water center. "You love all the fancy, computer-controlled stuff until lightning hits the trailer and fries everything. If it can go wrong out here, it will."

Another key aspect of the center's research is the study of urban water. One project, in conjunction with UMBC, is called the Baltimore Ecosystems Study. On another project, scientists from the USGS and UMBC are trying to determine the "urban growth limit" of the region's water supply.

When Dine climbed over a guardrail and down into the Gwynn Falls to check the water level last week, he had to remove a T-shirt and cans that had collected around the gauge. A homeless person's mattress and shopping cart were visible on the other bank, and the area was strewn with trash.

Scientists at UMBC and the water center can come up with precise answers about the health and longevity of water in Baltimore, but Soeder summed up the reality in a few words while watching Dine toss aside the trash.

Water in the city's streams, he said, "is a little gritty."

The writer welcomes comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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