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Digging deep – NIU geology professor is uncovering the secrets of water quality in prairie restorations

March 24, 2021

When NIU Biology Professor Holly Jones was awarded a $703,000 National Science Foundation Grant to study prairie restoration on a half-acre site north of the NIU Convocation Center, she and her colleague Melissa Lenczewski (a professor of geology) immediately saw an opportunity for collaboration.

Professor Melissa Lenczewski (yellow hat, foreground), graduate student Kayla Koenig (background, yellow hat) and geology lab manager Joshua Schwartz (orange hat) install monitoring wells on the NICCS site north of the NIU Convocation Center.

“We immediately asked, ‘Has anybody ever looked at the groundwater when people do prairie restoration projects?’” Lenczewski says. “So we started looking into the literature and realized that scientists had not looked at the water quality and quantity before, during and after a restoration project, and they’ve generally looked at only about the top ten inches of soil. We realized we had the opportunity to do something that’s never been done before by looking deep into the soil – nearly 20 feet – and monitoring the groundwater over a long period of time.”

Lenczewski, a professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences and director of the NIU Institute for the Study of Environment, Sustainability and Energy (ESE), recently installed seven monitoring wells on the prairie restoration site. She and a team of student researchers will test water from these wells regularly over the next five years. They’ll also work closely with Assistant Professor of Geology Megan Brown, a hydrogeologist who will be modeling the change in groundwater quantity throughout the study. As a geochemist, Lenczewski will be focused more closely on the water quality, or chemistry of the water.

Jones’ and Lenczewski’s studies are some of the first research associated with the new Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability (NICCS), which is part of the Illinois Innovation Network and will have its home on NIU’s far west campus. While the NICCS building is still in the planning stages, the center’s research is going strong with five research studies currently in the early stages and other research beginning soon.

“Although NICCS is still in the design phase, research is already underway with faculty collaborating across disciplines,” says Gerald (Jerry) Blazey, NIU vice president for research and innovation partnerships, who has been coordinating activities for the new center. “The prairie restoration and groundwater monitoring wells should be the first steps in increased activity on the far west side of NIU’s DeKalb campus. We can’t wait to welcome visitors to tour the restoration site and enjoy the beauty of the newly restored prairie as the site evolves over the next several years.”

And what a unique site it is!

According to Lenczewski, although much of Illinois seems flat – and even a little boring – upon first glance, the state is geologically complex and fascinating beneath the surface of the earth. “Just imagine,” Lenczewski says, “before the last glacial maximum the area just west of DeKalb looked like the Wisconsin Dells – marked by rivers, cliffs, canyons and gorges. Then the glacier came in and filled that entire valley, just smearing sediment across the whole top of the state.”

20-foot intact soil cores will allow the researchers to understand the geology of the prairie restoration site and the influence soil type has on groundwater and plant growth.

As Lenczewski and her team drilled the monitoring wells on the NICCS site, they collected 20-foot intact soil and sediment cores from each well. “As geologists, we take these cores, and we open them up so we know exactly what’s there for 20 feet below the surface. Then we recreate the geologic history based upon our measurements and analyses of the soil cores,” Lenczewski says. “Illinois is so complicated because of where the glaciers were! You could take two cores from within three feet of each other and get two different geologies.”

While Lenczewski’s team begins gathering data from the new monitoring wells, Jones and her collaborator Nick Barber (a former NIU faculty member now at San Diego State University) will have young plants grown indoors throughout the winter, which they’ll put in the ground in June. These small plants – a variety of prairie grasses, legumes and wildflowers – will take several years to become established enough for the team to begin the next stage of the research: experimental grazing, or selectively cutting down some of the plants to simulate the diet of bison, those iconic prairie grazers. Jones is excited to apply to findings from this small experimental plot to her team’s study on the full-scale prairie restoration (complete with bison herds) at Nachusa Grasslands, about 30 miles west of DeKalb.

Through this whole process Lenczewski will be monitoring the groundwater, providing valuable information to scientists studying ecological change, as well as to practitioners who engage in prairie restoration projects.

Lenczewski says the interdisciplinary nature of the faculty and student research teams are the most exciting part of NICCS. “Collaboration across disciplines is the whole purpose of NICCS – to allow university faculty members to work together and to break down the barriers between these disciplines. That’s really where the most interesting science can occur, when we work together and learn about the tools the other researchers are using.”

The team of graduate students assisting Lenczewski is emblematic of this cross-disciplinary cooperation. “I had a lab meeting of my group, and I have graduate students in chemistry, biology, geology and geography,” says Lenczewski. “Of five students, they’re from four different departments, but they’re all working together on projects. One student may know how to do all the chemistry, and this other student knows the geology, but they have to work together – they have to learn to communicate across these different disciplines.”

Learn more about the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability (NICCS) and other current research projects on the NICCS website.