While we drink and use water every day, we rarely give thought to where it comes from and how it gets to our homes and businesses. However, keeping the United States’ waterways safe and protected is the mission of two groups out of the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) Department of Biology.
Read on below for information about UNO's Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory, the Nebraska Watershed Network, and "Lil' Miss Atrazine" a first-of-its-kind project happening this week partnering UNO with citizen scientists from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico to study the Mississippi River.
About the UNO Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory
Within the last two years, the UNO Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory and Nebraska Watershed Network have been working together to keep Nebraska’s waterways clean, thereby preserving the natural habitats of the fish and insects found in the area’s rivers and lakes. Run by Alan Kolok, professor of biology at UNO, the UNO Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory has spent the last five years testing Nebraska waterways for a common herbicide known as atrazine. Research has shown that too much atrazine in the water has adversely affected the reproductive development of wildlife that call those bodies of water home.
“Many people may think that water pollutants just come from factories in the city, but there is also a high level of contamination that can come from pesticides and herbicides used by area farmers and ranchers,” explained Kolok.
Fulfilling UNO’s commitment to graduate level research, STEM education and community engagement, the Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory has made great strides in biological research within the last five years.
Kolok and his students use a mini-mobile environmental monitoring unit, which designed to simultaneously detect the occurrence andbiological effect of water-born contaminants.
The laboratory also brings in citizens of the Omaha-metro area to use atrazine testing strips to conduct research on their own. Every year Kolok organizes a “What’s In Your Watershed?” day to bring together citizen scientists who can collect data that will be used in research.
About the Nebraska Watershed Network
In 2012, the UNO Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory officially opened a new research station along the Elkhorn River, located at 245th and Q Streets. Thanks to the station, Kolok and his students are able to monitor toxicity levels in the Elkhorn River over a more consistent timeframe.
Around this same time, Kolok’s students formed their own organization called the Nebraska Watershed Network , a community-focused group that marries engagement and research in the Omaha-metro community.
Lil' Miss Atrazine Project: Partnering with citizen scientists to study 1,400 miles of the Mississippi River
One major project currently being undertaken by the Nebraska Watershed Network is “Lil Miss Atrazine” - a multi-state assessment of the Mississippi River Basin, stretching from Minnesota to Louisiana.
Students will team up with 67 citizen scientists from across eight states to determine if toxic levels of atrazine exist in their waterways. These scientists will then upload their data through Twitter, Instagram or email.
“What is so unique about this project, other than the scale of the data collection, is that we will be utilizing these new social media avenues to get real-time information without needing to be there in person,” Kolok said. “This not only improves our understanding of how to collect data, but it also engages local communities, letting them have a voice in what happens to their watersupply.”
Student leaders will travel to St. Louis and New Orleans to partner with city zoos to collect data while, locally, the Nebraska Watershed Network will be working with students from King Science Magnet Center to test downtown waterways. Once the data is collected from the event, researchers from each location will determine possible courses of action that may need to betaken by businesses and farmers in the area.
The goal of “Lil’ Miss Atrazine” is to expand in 2015, hopefully including more of the Mississippi River’s western tributaries throughout Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado. Lil Miss Atrazine is just one of several projects organized by the Nebraska Watershed Network over the last year, others have included a “BioBlitz” in La Vista, Neb.; the Thompson Creek Restoration project; and multiple water quality tests in Omaha and its surrounding towns.
The Nebraska Watershed Network is one of the first organizations to have a home in UNO’s new Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center. For more information, you can visit their Facebook page. The Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory is based out of Allwine Hall and the Department of Biology.