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Testing the waters

April 23, 2012

Photo of a glass of waterA group of NIU faculty and students are hoping their newly developed water sampling techniques might soon be employed to detect sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, one of America’s most scenic and important bodies of water.

Geology professor Melissa Lenczewski, anthropology professor Kendall Thu and four NIU students will travel this week to Washington, D.C., to meet with non-profit organizations that advocate for clean water in the Mid-Atlantic region.

About 200 miles long, the coastal Chesapeake Bay has shorelines in Maryland and Virginia. More than 150 rivers and streams drain into the bay, and many are sources of drinking water.

“Animal feeding operations can be common sources of water contamination, but typical water sampling techniques don’t provide detailed information on the source of contamination,” Lenczewski said.

“I’ve been working with Kendall Thu on promising new techniques to better identify point sources of contamination, including one technique that traces water ground flow,” she added. “We’ve been using these water sampling techniques here in DeKalb County. So we will be demonstrating the techniques for possible adaptation by environmental organizations in Washington.”

Lenczewski specializes in geomicrobiology, organic geochemistry and contaminant hydrogeology. Thu is a cultural anthropologist whose research focuses on the relationships between industrialized food systems, the environment, public health, rural social dynamics and state power and policy.

The two faculty members connected through NIU’s new Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability, and Energy, which fosters interdisciplinary research and oversees NIU’s Environmental Studies academic programs.

All of the students taking part in this week’s trip also have some level of expertise and interest in environmental issues:

  • Graduate student David Mills (geology and environmental geosciences) performs field water sampling and lab analysis. Mills also is working on a master’s thesis based on the development of the water sampling techniques.
  • Graduate student Linn Kleppe (anthropology) works with Thu, helping with water sampling and a newsletter for the Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water.
  • Senior Eric Sterling (anthropology) has been working on an interactive map of Illinois that combines several layered data bases. This includes plotting impaired waterways and the proximity to concentrated animal feeding operations.
  • Graduate student Jackie Whelan (anthropology) assists with lab analysis and is currently working with Sterling on the mapping project.
Melissa Lenczewski and Kendall Thu

Melissa Lenczewski and Kendall Thu

Also participating in the Washington, D.C. visit will be Danielle Diamond, who received her law degree from NIU, as well as a master’s degree in anthropology with an emphasis on environmental issues. She and Thu are active collaborators on Clean Water Act policy issues.

The NIU group will meet with representatives from the Environmental Integrity Project and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for our students to get involved in real environmental issues and make a difference,” Thu said. “What’s also exciting is that the entire effort is a by-product of interdisciplinary engagement resulting from the development of NIU’s Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability, and Energy. This is exactly the type of work the institute was designed to foster.”