BY NICOLE VILLACRES '18
Clean Water Action, a national environmental group, has awarded the Environmental Ground-Breaker Award to professor Kate Ballantine for her work with the Restoration Ecology Program. The program was created in 2012, when Ballantine and her environmental studies students noticed that Upper Lake had a severe problem with algae blooms caused by excessive nutrient pollution. One facet of the program is the Project Stream restoration site, which is focused on restoring the wetland and stream that feeds into Upper Lake, so that the nutrients would be naturally filtered out.
Project Stream is connected to Ballantine’s restoration ecology course and dates back to the spring of 2013. Ballantine outlined how students in the class, who first conceived of the project, researched background information and then each new class has carried the project forward, making it largely student driven.
“The students in this course wanted to understand the pollution problems they observed in Lower Lake, so we did an intensive study of the campus lakes system that resulted in a proposal to restore a small tributary leading into Upper Lake,” said Ballantine. “Each year, students in Restoration Ecology took on new aspects of the restoration project, from background research to site monitoring to project design. During the summer, REP interns carried out research and educational programs on the site.”
This past summer, Julia Criscione ’18 worked as an REP intern along with Nia Bartolucci ’17, Ali Tucker ’16 and Jovanna Robinson-Hidas ’16. The interns worked to collect data on water quality, soil properties and other components of the site to evaluate how the ecosystem had changed due to the restoration. Criscione also worked to facilitate the Restoration Ecology Summer Scholars Program, which she described as “a week-long summer camp for high-school girls that teaches them the basics about wetlands and restoration ecology.”
“We taught lessons, worked one-on-one with students during hands-on activities and answered their questions about what it’s like to study environmental science at the undergraduate level,” said Criscione.
Criscione is one intern of the many that will contribute to the project, which she describes as a “long-term process,” saying this is “just the beginning.”
“It will take decades for the wetland to, in a sense, ‘operate at full capacity’ to carry out many of the functions that wetlands are known for, such as water filtration, denitrification and carbon sequestration. Hopefully in the years to come, the water that flows through Project Stream and enters Upper Lake will be cleaner and the wetland itself will continue to be dominated by native plant species,” said Criscione.
Ballantine notes that she hopes that as the research continues on the site, more projects and courses will utilize the outdoor classroom.
“Visitors to the Project Stream will notice a variety of scientific equipment throughout the site, and this represents just some of the ongoing research taking place at the site. Students and faculty are asking a variety of questions at the site, and research topics range from how ecosystems change over time to the influence of wetlands on climate change to the impact of restoration-based education,” said Ballantine. “We are also working hard to find funding for phase two of the project, which would extend the boardwalk deeper into the site and make the current path into a loop that crosses a bridge over the stream, has a viewing platform by the 300-foot deep well, and would have another outdoor classroom space.”
Ballantine is sharing the award with the REP and the MHC students who inspired the restoration of Project Stream.
“The REP has accomplished so much in science, practice, education and outreach relating to restoration ecology, and it’s wonderful to have our work recognized,” said Ballantine. “Restoration is extremely important and extremely common — there are millions of restoration projects throughout the world — but the field is young and many restoration projects aren’t done well. I was inspired to start the Restoration Ecology Program because there is a need for deep thinkers in the field of restoration ecology and I believe MHC is the ideal place for an undergraduate program in this field.”