It's all about balance: Students study how water movement shapes landscape of local creek

Jesus Sanchez, Cristal Campocasso, and Logan Pelo perform a survey of a reference transect at the Libra Road site.

The words “fluvial” and “geomorphology” are not “everyday words” for most college students. But, these words are a crucial part of Alexander Kalna’s vocabulary. 

Fluvial geomorphology examines the ways moving water interacts with the physical objects in it, therefore reshaping the landscape as it transports sediment.

“Fluvial processes sculpt the landscape, eroding landforms, transporting sediment and depositing it to create new landforms,” The National Park Service’s website said. “Human civilization and ecosystems alike are dependent on fluvial systems.”

Kalna, an environmental sciences graduate student from House Springs, Missouri, and his wife, social science graduate student Cristal Campocasso, of Venezuela, are focusing on a research project at Silver Creek Watershed. The watershed lies just 30 minutes from campus and is mostly located in Madison County but also runs though Macoupin and Montgomery counties.

Kalna received a research grant in Spring 2020 and used it to fund his research equipment used study how logjams affect the shape of the creek. He said a logjam occurs when two or more large pieces of wood get stuck together in a creek. 

Kalna said he was drawn to his thesis project at the Silver Creek Watershed in response to an assessment’s findings.

“The Heartland Conservancy put together a watershed assessment … they met with a bunch of local government and Illinois EPA, landowners and town municipality people,” Kalna said. “Basically … the creek was or is on the Illinois EPA impoundment list for sediments and excess nutrients, so they put together a report on how they want to fix it.”

Kalna said he disagreed with their suggestion to fix it by removing logjams — while they might cause some erosion, they are natural occurrences. Logjams can cause flooding by causing the water to move from side to side instead of down the creek’s middle.

“Just here in Illinois, since there is so much agriculture, people don’t like [the flooding] because they start losing their fields to the other side of the creek,” Kalna said.

Kalna said he is trying to prove that the logjams are beneficial.

“Logjams are important because by causing streams to meander and wander side to side, by that erosion, they create a lot more habitat for biodiversity,” Kalna said. “It just increases the health of the creek overall.”

Kalna said the soil’s differences, whether it be sand, clay or rocky, are all habitats and that the wood itself is a food source and shelter.

“That’s not really natural or healthy,” Kalna said. “It’s basically just one type of habitat in the stream.”

Slow-moving water creates a sludge-like creek bottom, and when a tree falls in, it creates blockages that force the water to move quickly through small sections, changing the landscape. This fast-moving water allows sediment to travel down the creek, creating new habitats in these slower-moving waters.

Senior environmental science major Jesus Sanchez, of Colllinsville, Illinois, said a logjam changes the stream’s shape by pushing the water flow to the opposite side of the logjam, breaking down the banks and allowing sediment to travel.

“What happens when trees fall in, it creates a dam, a build-up of where things can get caught up on and it disrupts the way sediment settles,” Sanchez said. “We are now processing the sediments in the lab.”

Senior geography major Logan Pelo, of Staunton, Illinois, said the research would help them understand the way sediment changes by studying different grain sizes. They are also investigating if that distribution changes consistently and what the effects are on the channel beds.  

“Knowing how the sediment distribution changes, because of the presence of the logjam, helps to predict flooding events. If you have a logjam that’s really close to an overpass, that changes the way the water flows,” Pelo said. “That can have effects on the longevity of the overpass.”

The research team agrees there has to be a balance between these naturally occurring biodiverse habitats and flooding impacts.

“The ultimate goal of science like this is understanding where that balance is,” Pelo said. “There has to be a balance, and I think this research helps us understand closer to what that balance looks like in the future.”

Kalna said they spent about 100 hours from July to October collecting samples of sediments on both sides of the logjams to determine the creek’s health.

During their work as research assistants for Kalna, Pelo and Sanchez began an independent water quality project for GEOPATHS, a program that hopes to create awareness of the geosciences field.

“We will be looking for how much dissolved solids, dissolved oxygen and electrical conductivity are present in the water and at the pH levels and temperature of the water,” Sanchez said. “Especially because there is a lot of agricultural run-off, we will be relating precipitation levels to those variables.”

While mapping out locations and taking notes for Kalna’s project, they collected water for 20 weeks to test for agricultural contaminants that can affect the creek and its wildlife.

Kalna’s mentor is Adriana Martinez, an associate professor in the Departments of Geography and Environmental Sciences. She studies human influence on river systems and helped bring Kalna together with the two geoscholars through GEOPATHS. 

Kalna’s research is now in the lab phase while Pelo and Sanchez have completed their water data tables for their GEOPATHS research project, which will be presented in April.

Sanchez said working on projects studying sediment and water quality will help him focus on environmental management. He said he is able to spend time outdoors, which he enjoys.

“I’ve always liked science, and I wanted to do something with research,” Sanchez said. “[There] is a balance between doing lab work and fieldwork. You are not constantly inside.”

While Kalna, Pelo and Sanchez all said they want to work at places such as the National Park Service or the U.S. Geological Survey, Campocasso’s career path is different. She said she wants to focus on cognitive behavioral therapy among adolescent minority groups, possibly in a university or hospital setting.

Kalna, Campocasso, Pelo and Sanchez said they think other students would benefit from knowing what beautiful nature lies near the campus. They recommend students inquire into the GEOPATHS or STEM programs because students aren’t aware that so many fields intertwine with science. 

Undergraduate students who have at least two years left of school can apply to work with the GEOPATHS project regardless of their career path.

For more information on GEOPATHS or other STEM projects, contact the Director of the Center for STEM Research, Education and Outreach, Sharon Locke at slocke@siue.edu.

Those interested in volunteering in conservation projects can check out The Watershed Nature Center or Heartlands Conservancy.

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