Working on the Watershed: Q & A with Watershed Scientist Dr. John Sloan

I apologize to you readers that this post is late. Things in the lab have gotten very busy as you will read, but I am pleased to introduce our next guest, Dr. John Sloan from Lewis and Clark Community College and the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. John is NGRREC’s Watershed Scientist, and I have been working in his lab for about a year and a half. I thought this would be an excellent conclusion to the little series we had on water quality.

Figure 1

Figure 1: From right, John Sloan, Ted Kratschmer, Rachael Van Essen (me) and Miles Corcoron standing in front of the GREON buoy to be deployed on Lake Carlyle.

  1. What is the goal of your research? What question or problem do you hope to answer or solve?

My research at NGRREC addresses the connection between land management practices and water quality. Currently, many rivers and streams throughout Illinois and the Upper Mississippi River watershed are classified as impaired because poor water quality prevents them from being fully utilized by the community. Agriculture is the primary land use in the upper Mississippi River Basin, and therefore has the largest impact on water quality. More specifically, my research focuses on agricultural and urban practices that result in excessive nutrients and sediments being delivered to streams and rivers, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, I am working with Heartlands Conservancy and Madison County to develop a watershed management plan for the Upper Silver Creek Watershed which is impaired by excessive phosphorus and sediments. It is important for a community to have a watershed management plan that identifies which agricultural and urban best management practices they can use to protect their water resources. It is also important to have a water quality monitoring plan that will determine whether or not the best management practices implemented throughout the watershed actually improve water quality.

Figure 2

Figure 2: NGRREC researchers attached this water quality monitoring buoy to the Clark Bridge March 27.

  1. How did you become interested in this topic?

I was raised on a family farm in the Illinois River Valley in Central Illinois that was a combination of floodplains, hillsides, forests and grasslands. We initially used all the available land to raise livestock and grow row crops. Based on that experience, it was obvious to me from a young age that the way we manage our land has a major impact on our natural resources including water and soil. Not all of our farm land was suitable for agricultural production. My father realized this and was an early adopter of many conservation programs available through federal and state agencies. Therefore, our family farm has become an example of what good conservation practices can accomplish.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Dr. Sloan rides in a boat on the lower Sangamon River to deploy an ISCO water sampler.

  1. What are your results so far?

In regards to the Upper Silver Creek Watershed, we have completed the first draft of a watershed management plan that identifies current water quality problems in the watershed and describes which best management practices should be implemented in order to improve or eliminate those problems. Initial planning was made possible with a grant from the Illinois EPA with Heartlands Conservancy leading the project. We recently applied for a 319(h) grant from the Illinois EPA that will allow us to move the project from a planning phase to actual implementation of conservation practices.

On a more broad scale, a major part of my time since arriving at NGRREC has been devoted to the establishment of a network of water quality monitoring sites in the Kaskaskia and Sangamon river watersheds. With collaboration from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we deployed one of our Great Rivers Ecological Observatory Network (GREON) (See Figures 1 and 2) buoys on Carlyle Lake in the Kaskaskia watershed. A second GREON buoy was deployed on Lake Decatur which is located in the Sangamon River watershed. In addition to the sensor-based monitoring being accomplished with the GREON buoys, we have established a water quality monitoring site in the Sanganois Fish & Wildlife Area downriver from Lake Decatur (See figures 3 and 4). This site consists of automatic collection of water samples on a daily basis that are later retrieved and analyzed in our environmental chemistry laboratory.

Figure 4

Figure 4: The ISCO is fitted with a solar panel to keep it powered, and the floats in the water keep the sample intake in the water column and off the bottom of the river.

  1. Where is your research heading in the future and what obstacles, if any, do you have to overcome?

With the establishment of multiple water quality monitoring sites and a state-of-the-art environmental chemistry laboratory, the watershed science project is well-positioned to take an increasing role in water quality monitoring in the Upper Mississippi River watershed. (See Figure 5) As we streamline our sample collection and analysis procedures, we will be able to grow the monitoring network to other watersheds outside the Sangamon and Kaskaskia watersheds. Limited funding is always an obstacle for scientific research, but we continue to seek out collaborative partners who can work with us on these efforts.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Dr. Sloan and I test the quality of water samples in our lab.

  1. Is there any other information you would like people to know about your research?

I was trained in soil science, which is appropriate for a watershed scientist, because most rain that falls to the earth comes into contact with soil where it either infiltrates or runs off.   Obviously, the way we manage our soils will have a huge impact on water quality. I believe the key to achieving improved water quality is to protect and conserve our soils through practices such as no-till, reduced tillage, and cover crops. These practices will help farmers achieve sustainable productivity while protecting our freshwater resources.

In addition to the research that he does, John also educates the next generation of scientists by working with the NGRREC education team and other NGRREC scientists to teach and participate in the yearly summer internship (See figure 6). If you are interested in learning about other research being done at NGRREC or about the public education opportunities please visit www.ngrrec.org.

Figure 6

Figure 6: Dr. Sloan helps NGRREC interns in the lab.

 

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