Undergraduate researchers study changing aquifers, sustaining streamflow

By on August 29, 2014

Former USI undergrad Chanse Ford at savanna restoration monitoring site in the Mansitee National Forest, Michigan. (Credit: Paul Doss)

A few years ago, when a new science building in was in the works on the University of Southern Indiana, geology professor Paul Doss came to the architects with an idea: Let him drill two monitoring wells into the sandstone aquifer on the site and then build the rest of the building around them.

They went for it, and data from the ground-floor lab has since provided some insights into how the aquifer functions while giving the undergraduate geology students a crack at meaningful real-world research.

Pressure transducers at the bottoms of the 60-meter and 100-meter wells record water levels every hour and have produced a five-year continuous record of changes in the water table. Students have dug into to that data to learn more about how the aquifer responds to natural changes in atmospheric pressure and even gravitational forces of the sun and moon, Doss said.

“I was able to get students involved with linking atmospheric change to groundwater level change,” he said. “We were able to get student involvement in evaluating earth tidal response of the aquifer.”

The lab sits amid urban expansion on there western edge of Evansville, Indiana, which Doss anticipated would give them the chance to trace effects of urbanization on the aquifer’s recharge. But that expansion has also come with a shift from domestic household groundwater wells to more connections to the municipal water supply, which is drawn from the Ohio River. And the data has shown the aquifer react to having fewer wells withdrawing its water.

“We’re seeing a very real and measurable rebound of shallow groundwater levels in the aquifer,” Doss said. “It appears as if, at least locally or regionally, water levels are rising in response to decreased demand on the resource.”

A raw, long-term hydrograph of hourly data from the groundwater lab at USI. The upper water level shows a increase in aquifer storage over the 4-year period of record.  (Credit: Paul Doss)

Doss is also involved with a few long-term monitoring projects in the Manistee National Forest in northern Michigan, where groundwater has an important influence on cold water stream. Several years ago, the U.S. Forest Service asked Doss for his help in coming up with a protocol for assessing threats to water resources from potential development. That initial relationship evolved into a full-scale monitoring network next to this headwater reach with collecting data on discharge and groundwater levels in the uplands and riparian wetlands adjacent to the stream.

“My students are my collaborators on that,” Doss said. “We’re looking at these dynamic behaviors and ultimately trying to understand: How does groundwater sustain streamflow?”

A short-term deployment for streambed monitoring in headwaters of the White River, Manistee National Forest.  Site is recording synchronous hydraulic head, specific conductivity, and temperature data of upwelling groundwater and streamflow at 5 minute intervals. (Credit: Paul Doss)

Doss feels strongly about undergraduate research, saying he made a conscious decision to focus on that when he entered the academy.

“I benefitted from it tremendously as an undergraduate student,” he said. “And I felt compelled in my career to make the same kind of commitment to it.”

Top image: Former USI undergrad Chanse Ford at a savanna restoration monitoring site in the Mansitee National Forest, Michigan. (Credit: Paul Doss)

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