Pushing science to restore water quality
Beyond issues of drought, the tiniest substance can affect earth’s most valuable resource, and Regents Professor of biology Sam Atkinson has the tools at UNT to improve it.
By Jessica DeLeón
Photo credits: Angilee Wilkerson
About three years ago, officials from the city of Denton approached Sam Atkinson, Regents Professor of biology at the University of North Texas, about a problem in their water.
They were worried about the high levels of atrazine — a heavily used, inexpensive herbicide used in agriculture and for lawn care that has been potentially linked to breast cancer — and they wanted to know where it was coming from.
Atkinson and his team got to work, using the tools available to them thanks to UNT’s longtime commitment to water research. Water research began at UNT in 1935, when J.K.G. “Doc” Silvey began examining the differences in the taste of tap water. Throughout the years, UNT scientists have developed an understanding of the compounds and processes that can damage water quality, allowing them to lead aquatic restoration and conservation efforts across Texas.
Today, researchers in UNT’s Institute of Applied Science, led by Atkinson, continue to push boundaries in the field of aquatic ecosystem restoration and aquatic ecology. And the North Texas region provides the perfect backdrop and diverse aquatic environments — especially the unique combination of aquatic ecosystems, prairies and wildlife — for UNT’s researchers to continue groundbreaking discoveries to support water conservation and restoration projects.
“Understanding the impacts on water, one of our most valuable resources, helps us restore its quality, using basic science to solve problems is one of the fundamental things we do in the Institute of Applied Science,” Atkinson says. “That leads us to water quality management planning to assure that we use our water wisely.”
SAFER DRINKING WATER
Atkinson’s task was to predict which particular waterways had the atrazine. Atrazine kills certain weeds, but doesn’t harm many plants including corn or wheat, making it a popular tool to use for farms and yards. But atrazine has been found to disrupt the endocrine system, which makes hormones, by disrupting certain biochemical pathways. Some bodies mistake it for estrogen and further, atrazine has been implicated as a potential risk for breast cancer.
Atkinson got behind the computer, where he can predict how the tiniest elements can affect water quality, and he developed a model looking at the environmental factors related to atrazine contamination and highlighted places atrazine levels might be found in high levels.
He believed that farmers applied the herbicide at the rates they’re supposed to, but thought homeowners may overuse it for their lawns because it is a relatively inexpensive way to “keep up with the neighbors’ lush lawns.” Atrazine doesn’t stick to soil so, after a rainstorm, or a heavy sprinkler day, it washes into nearby creeks.
He looked at 35 creeks and tributaries around Lake Lewisville, predicting places that atrazine would be above drinking water limits. Of the seven places he predicted, five were accurate. Atrazine was showing up in the water from the streams flowing from the eastern part of Lake Lewisville — mostly brand new residential areas in which the homeowners were using atrazine for their yards.
Using this information, the city of Denton developed an education program to inform homeowners about the risks of the improper use of atrazine. Soon, the atrazine levels began decreasing in local streams.
“That was a project I feel really good about,” Atkinson says. “Once people knew about the problem — maybe I should put this weed killer at the right rate — the problem was reduced.”
LIVING LAB & RESOURCES
Atkinson’s team is able to conduct research like this, including examining the effects of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Gulf Coast with the support from a recent $3 million grant from the Gulf Coast Initiative, through a variety of resources.
One of Atkinson’s “offices” is a 2,000-acre swath of land in the middle of metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth. The Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA, produced Lee-luh), which sits south of Lewisville Lake, is a living lab that provides unique opportunities for hands-on training with its vast prairieland, array of animals and diversity of waterways, including the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. UNT leads a consortium that leases the land from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for scientific research and environmental education purposes.
Besides research, the land is used for recreational purposes, including kayaking, campuses and backpacking; field trips by local schoolchildren; and prairie and wetland restoration efforts, with UNT students and employees from companies like REI and Starbucks helping out.
Atkinson and other faculty members also conduct research at the Lewisville Aquatic Ecosystems Research Facility, which is located within LLELA and administered by the Corps of Engineers. That research can include studying nuisance aquatic weeds, which can impact the nation’s waterways needed to ship billions of dollars of goods, to restoring the ecosystems in various Texas lakes and rivers.
“It’s a very unique thing,” Atkinson says. “There are hardly any other learning spaces like this in the nation. Between the prairie and the forest and the waterways, UNT has this great classroom and great research facility.”
Other resources are available for water researchers. UNT also has a simulation chamber in the Environmental Education Science and Technology Building in which computers can be projected on screen — almost the size of a movie screen — so researchers can examine multiple images simultaneously and mine through loads of data.
For example, Atkinson has yearly satellite images, obtained through the U.S. government, of the Denton and Dallas-Fort Worth areas from 1984 to 2015, allowing him to see how land use has changed over the past 30 years and how those changes may affect the pollutants entering our waterways.
“When the images fade from one year to the next over just a few minutes in time,” Atkinson says, “it provides dramatic evidence of how much humans alter the landscape upon which we depend.”
Additionally, Atkinson’s knowledge of computer modeling has allowed him to assist other faculty members and graduate students — including Joseph Oppong, professor of geography, and Armin R. Mickler, professor of computer science and engineering, who turned to him for their research into epidemiology, since many diseases are affected by the environment through which they are transmitted.
He also has assisted Jessica Beckham, who is studying bumblebee colony collapse for her doctoral degree in environmental science.
His environmental expertise led to a prestigious appointment as vice chairman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Advisory Board. In this role, Atkinson and nine other experts from across the nation, all approved by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, meet with other top experts from across the nation in order to understand the multiple issue the Corps faces. They report to the Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Chief of Engineers.
“He uses us as a think tank,” Atkinson says. “He wants to know what problems the Corps will face in five years.”
Atkinson is crucial to the group, says Rollin H. Hotchkiss, the board’s chairman and professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Brigham Young University.
Bostick asked them to give the Corps a method to rank the many pending projects that involve environmental restoration so the projects can be carried out in priority order as funding comes available.
In another project, the board recommended the Corps examine how they release water from their hundreds of dams to consider changes to the flow release for water quality improvement.
“I value Sam’s work on the board for two reasons,” Hotchkiss says. “First, he makes very insightful comments and questions at our meetings, including those with Chief Bostick. Sam is able to synthesize complex issues and boil them down to a few very meaningful questions. Sam gets to the heart of any matter. Second, Sam has taken the initiative to work on assigned tasks outside of our normal meeting times. This has been a good example for other board members who have begun to follow suit.”
Researching water quality is made all the more challenging by the effects of climate change, which may changes patterns of severe weather and drought.
If long-term climatic changes alter the short-term patterns of extreme weather, it’s important to prepare for the way we need to change how we manage our water resources. Are communities ready to change the way they use water?”
After all, there is no more valuable resource than water.
"Water is key to our survival,” Atkinson says. “We use it for drinking, for transporting ourselves and our goods, for recreation, for cleaning, for growing our crops and livestock, for manufacturing thousands of different products, for energy production. Water is life.”