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APSU biologists at the forefront of water-quality studies

March 19, 2001

After three consecutive years of drought, Tennessee is in dire need of a water-resource management plan.

"To put it plainly, we're nearing a crisis," said Dr. Mack Finley, professor of biology and research scientist in the Center for Field Biology at Austin Peay.

The extended drought is affecting more than agricultural crops, Finley says.

When the water table drops significantly, the supply and quality of our water become more vulnerable. "Middle Tennessee experienced several small fish kills last summer due to low water levels and insufficiently dissolved oxygen in our streams," he says.

Finley and fellow research scientists at APSU have been up to their hip boots in water-related problems for years. Now, they're working to increase public awareness about the critical need for conservation and protection of ground and surface waters.

Besides conducting research and teaching a graduate course, Finley responds to many requests for help with water-quality problems. He and Dr. Steve Hamilton, professor of biology, are investigating and helping resolve problems that occur when polluted water reaches lakes and streams through such indirect sources as leaching of livestock wastes, faulty sewage systems, fertilizers and pesticides.

Dr. Don Dailey, associate professor of biology, has waded into the investigation of water pollutants as well. For two years, he and a graduate student have researched antibiotic-resistant bacteria in ground water.

"We sampled surface waters in Robertson County that receive farm run-off and found Enterococci that are resistant to tetracycline." Antibiotic resistance is linked to a genetic marker that can be transferred to other bacteria. The result: an increase in the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and reduced effectiveness of antibiotics against illness.

Other members of the biology department are hard at work on water-related issues as well. Dr. Jeff Lebkuecher, plant physiologist, studies the effects of pollutants on algae productivity. Algae productivity and sediment from soil erosion are good indicators of water quality. His data offers clues to pollution runoff and allows researchers to rapidly assess water-quality.

Laurina Lyle, environmental educator in the department of biology, is coordinator of the state's Project WETT (Water Education for Tennessee Teachers). Part of a national network that trains K-12 science teachers in new methods of teaching environmental science with an emphasis on enhancing water quality, the WETT Project is funded by the EPA.

Lyle plans and facilitates teacher workshops throughout the state. She also coordinates a weeklong WETT Academy for up to 25 select teachers. "Focusing on the topic of water and how it relates to all life on earth makes science education more relevant to learners," she said.

In its third year, WETT has provided science curriculum guidance to more than 2,000 Tennessee teachers and impacted innumerable children.

This September, students from around Tennessee will help in the "Gathering of the Water" research project--created to teach children and adults about springs, water conservation and resource stewardship.

The project will start with a water festival called "Make a Splash," sponsored by National Project WETT and the Perrier Groups of America. On Sept. 21, thousands of school children will convene for a celebration at the Bicentennial Mall in Nashville.

Dr. Sherry L. Hoppe, president of APSU, has high praise for the activities of the center. "In large part, the research in our Center for Field Biology is funded by state and federal grants, and these scientists are good stewards of the dollars they garner," she says.

"The value of their research should not be underestimated. It has a significant and immediate relevance to society's health and well-being."