For the past few months, an unknowing student may have been surprised to stumble upon 150 miniature rivers in the basement of the Dana Building.
The experiment, known as the “Flume Room,” began in late August and officially ended on Dec. 24. Bradley Cardinale, an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, oversaw the experiment and said many tests allowed his research team to simulate environmental stresses on water quality and examine many different variables that affect watersheds.
“We’ve got invasive species, we’ve got erosion, we’ve got nutrient pollution, chemical pollution, biodiversity loss, the list goes on and on,” Cardinale said. “The goal of this project is to figure out what are the most pressing environmental problems that are facing the streams.”
Caridinale said he and his seven-person team took about 3,000 gallons of sediments and water from the Huron River and circulated the water in 150 containers.
To compare the effects of different hazards, they introduced variables such as chemicals or invasive species into separate mini-streams. The group also replicated incidents of erosion and sedimentation in other mini-streams. Each river’s health was assessed through its water quality and ability to produce oxygen.
While the mini-rivers are not currently running, Cardinale said he doesn’t expect data from the experiments to be analyzed until April.
Nonetheless, Cardinale said some results could be visibly observed. Mini-rivers that had been treated with the herbicide Roundup showed increased algae growth.
“(It’s) a little bizarre, but they grow like crazy when you add this stuff,” Cardinale said. “It could be quite possible that this herbicide could actually stimulate growth of things that clean up water and produce oxygen.”
Despite the apparent change in the growth rate, Cardinale said no observations are official yet, and the algae could potentially be harmful. He plans to assess factors such as the speed of oxygen production and nutrient consumption in the future.
“If those algae aren’t edible (to fish), there could be knock-on effects to other things we care about,” Cardinale said. “We will not know until the data is analyzed.”
Cardinale said environmental studies scientists have commonly believed testing Roundup was ineffective, but his study may disprove the idea. Scientists have also previously thought that the active compound in Roundup would break down easily, but he said the increased algae growth may suggest otherwise.
Thus far, the study’s findings apply strictly to the Huron River, but Cardinale plans to test other rivers in Michigan this summer.
Cardinale cited the Rouge River in metro Detroit as a body of water that is similarly in need of environmental improvement, adding that the Huron River is healthier because it is aided by extensive biodiversity and contains healthy levels of nutrients.
“The goal ultimately is to build on our case study of the Huron River to include pretty much all the watersheds in Michigan that would be flowing into the Great Lakes.”
Cardinale, who previously lived in California, sampled rivers in Los Angeles and throughout southern California before coming to the University.
He said syringes, body parts and other medical waste in some California rivers required him to get vaccinations before testing them.
“(It’s) unbelievable in a developed country that you have to get vaccinations before you go into a stream,” he said.