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 Measuring snowmelt, water quality; advocate of water-wise decisions

Posted on Sunday, Jul. 1, 2012

Photo courtesy by Iris Stewart-FreyIris Stewart-Frey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

Iris has had a passion for water ever since she was a child growing up in Germany, and has a clear desire to understand water, how teaching has influenced her research, and how we can all improve the efficiency of water use and overall water quality. I [Elizabeth Hart, '12] was able to interview her to learn about her love of water, her teaching interests, and her advice for conserving our planet’s most precious resource.

EH: How did you initially become interested in environmental issues that affect the water cycle and water supply?

ISF: My father was a biologist and hobby bird conservationist. While he was busy putting up special bird nesting sites and educational panels in the forests surrounding our small town in Germany, my brothers and I were left to play in the creeks that ran through these woods. Thus, I developed a lifelong love of water--hopping over rocks, playing in the mud, and swimming in swimming holes.

When I came to southern California, I really enjoyed the landscape but I was quite shocked to see how carelessly water was treated. People watered endlessly in the midday sun, and pesticides were applied liberally to yards and fields. I was even more shocked to find out what California has to do to get that water to the south and west so it can be carelessly treated. The more I learned about issues of water scarcity and water pollution, the more I became interested.

EH: What are the findings from your research on how water flow and quality in California will be affected by projected climate changes?

ISF: Some of the main findings from my research are that there has been a general shift of mountain stream flow towards earlier in the year over the past several decades, and I predict an even greater shift will likely take place by the end of the century, lengthening the summer drought period.

In addition, with continued climate warming we are expecting significantly lower Spring and Summer mountain stream flows, less snowmelt runoff, a greater frequency in the occurrence of drought conditions, increases in seasonal stream water temperatures by 1 to 6 ºC and substantial decreases in dissolved oxygen in stream waters.

Rising stream water temperatures affect the life cycle of cold-water fish such as rainbow trout. For the basins most vulnerable to climatic changes in the Sierra Nevada, dissolved oxygen levels are likely to fall below levels necessary to maintain aquatic life.

EH: What do you see for your near future? Is there anything you would like to change or add with class curriculum? Is there any research you that interest you for possible future work?

Students in a GIS class. Photo courtesy of Environmental Studies and Sciences at  SCUISF: All of us in ESS just accomplished a major overhaul of the Environmental Studies and Sciences majors, developed new tracks and significantly strengthened both. I am very pleased with these changes and especially like that we will see new upper division options such as Climate Science and Water Resources starting next year.

I would like to see more field methods in our classes and hope to incorporate some in the new Water Resources class. I’d also like to develop more GIS projects for our upper-division courses.

Research-wise I would like to expand my investigation of the connections between climatic changes and streamflow and water quality to other settings and systems.

EH: In your opinion, what are some things the general public can do to improve the efficiency of water use and improve water quality?

ISF: Water is in every aspect of our lives. There are a lot of personal choices we can make, from developing water-saving habits (such as turning off the tap and taking shorter showers) to using special devices (think along the lines of low-flow toilets and water-efficient dishwashers and washing machines), to adapting drought-resistant landscaping and watering schedules, and foregoing our private pools (gasp). But we must also start to think beyond these.

Water is used to produce essentially everything we eat or buy--about 2,500 gallons are used to produce a pound of beef. Pesticides and chemicals used in the production or food and other goods end up in water bodies.

If we want to go further in water conservation, we must educate ourselves and start to make water-wise choices, but we must also engage in our communities to work and vote for water-wise developments.

Stewart-Frey teaches ENVS 20: The Water Wars of California, ENVS 23: Soil, Water, and Air, ENVS 115: GIS in Environmental Science, and will be teaching ENVS 160: Water Resources starting next winter.

By Elizabeth Hart, '12 Sustainability Intern -- Faculty and Staff Initiatives

Tags: Curriculum, Education and Research, Profiles, Research, Water