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Tuesday, December 14, 2004
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Voinovich Center watershed research team awarded EPA grant

ATHENS, Ohio (Dec. 14, 2004) -- An interdisciplinary team of Ohio University researchers working on improving watershed quality have recently been awarded an $869,000 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant to help further their research on water safety.

The Science To Achieve Results (STAR) grant provides three-year funding for watershed research. The Ohio University team is composed of faculty and staff researchers from the Voinovich Center's Appalachian Watershed Research Group (AWRG), which was one of only four research teams in the nation to receive this grant award.

The project will allow the AWRG to find ways to predict and measure the habitat and water quality of streams and rivers across the region, even those that have never been physically monitored. Entitled "A Watershed Classification System and Geomorphic Tool to Predict Habitat Variables in the Western Allegheny Plateau Ecoregion: Toward Refined Biocritical and Stressor Identification of Impaired Streams," the project uses physical, chemical and biological factors to answer the question, "What is a healthy watershed?" The grant allows the group to perform research in the Western Allegheny Plateau eco-region (mostly Southeast Ohio) assessing the characteristics of watersheds to develop a model that will be used to predict stream health in Ohio and other regions.

"We're trying to figure out how a stream should perform biologically," team member Mary Stoertz said. "We're fixing streams and we're trying to figure out how broken they are."

STAR is a research program within the USEPA's National Center for Environmental Research that is intended to facilitate cooperation between the EPA and the scientific community to help find solutions to environmental problems. The program is intended to improve the quality of science used in the EPA's decision-making process and to engage the participation of the nation's best scientists.

Faculty from five different departments, including geology, geography, plant biology, biological sciences and civil engineering, in addition to staff from the Voinovich Center are involved in this interdisciplinary project. The research team's nine investigators are biologists Ed Rankin, Chris Yoder, Morgan Vis-Chiasson and Kelly Johnson; geologists Mary Stoertz, Dina Lopez, Greg Springer; geographer Jim Dyer; and engineer Ben Stuart. All of the faculty members in the AWRG have been named Voinovich Center Faculty Fellows.

"We have spent years putting together an interdisciplinary research group," Scott Miller, senior projects manager for the Voinovich Center's Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development (ILGARD) said. "And each member brings his or her professional expertise to the table. The interdisciplinary makeup of the group allows us to tackle every aspect of watershed health, from resident organisms to water chemistry."

According to Lopez, the team's work is especially crucial in Southeast Ohio, where so much watershed work is being done. The EPA has spent 30 years studying streams and rivers, but the data is incomplete.

"The idea is to put it all in one place and analyze it," Miller said.

The resulting database from this project can serve as a "decision tree" for resource managers and planners, helping them assess the need for remediation, Stuart said. "An improved environment could reawaken local economies as well as environmental consciousness."

The project has promising implications for remediation, Johnson said. It can help land managers dedicate resources and efforts to correcting an area's biggest problems.

Rankin adds that this is an important project because learning how ecosystems are put together can help scientists isolate harmful factors in the environment. The group is hoping to find a better way to tackle the question of how to protect aquatic life, which will in turn improve the quality of life for the people who depend on the watersheds.

Miller said that since Athens lies within the heart of the Hocking Valley coalfields and was founded as a trading post and coal-mining town it's only natural for Ohio University to dedicate resources to fixing the damage that was caused by mining.

"Mother Nature has a great ability to restore herself; and what we're finding is that in some streams, just by leaving them alone, they're beginning to come back on their own," Miller said.

This achievement provides research opportunities for university students as well as faculty and staff. Students from many of the departments involved will collect data in the field, and measure, sample and analyze information from old records.

Watershed research by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio EPA over the past three decades has helped lay the groundwork for the Ohio University team, and the researchers say that the STAR grant is vital to the continuation of this study. Among other things, funding from STAR allows the research team access to the necessary technology and to share its results with other researchers.

The implications of the project's land management model will provide an enhanced understanding of the area's complexity. And although the final model will be designed to serve the Western Allegheny Plateau region, it may also be adaptable for neighboring eco-regions with different biological and geographical compositions, giving the project relevance beyond Southeast Ohio.

"We'll have a better sense of what controls biodiversity," Stoertz said. "As we learn to respect each piece (of an ecosystem), we'll be more reluctant to just throw it out."

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Media Contact: Scott Miller, (740) 593-0827 or miller@ilgard.ohiou.edu

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