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Geography students develop watershed plan

Portrait of Chris Renschler

Chris Renschler, associate professor of geography, teaches UB's "Geography 470/570/Law 777" course.

Published November 17, 2011

UB students in the “Geography 470/570 /Law 777” course have spent the semester developing plans to manage the Cattaraugus watershed and surrounding ecology.

“This class basically goes in all the different directions that a research university wants to go. We’re doing research, learning and conducting outreach, all together.”
Chris Renschler, Associate Professor of Geography

They will present those plans from 8-11 a.m. Nov. 17 in the Cellino and Barnes Conference Center, 509 O’Brian Hall, North Campus, as part of Geography Awareness Week.

The course is taught by Chris S. Renschler, associate professor of geography, with the assistance of Barry Boyer, professor emeritus of law.

“Geography 470/570 Law 777” has one major assignment: A mini internship, or consultant-like project, in which students review existing plans in order to produce a more integrated plan for managing the water in rural watersheds more effectively.

The aim is to identify strategies to manage a range of water issues, from short-term flooding to long-term land use and conservation planning. These strategies address the needs and resources of different agencies and communities.

“This class has developed over the past years through input from students and stakeholders, and is an excellent way for enabling students to experience both research and outreach activities,” Renschler says. “This semester is the first time that we have nearly 30 students; in the past, we usually had less than 20.”

The class is made up of undergraduate, master’s and PhD students. Students interview watershed stakeholders to gain an understanding of their needs. Class discussions foster a conversation between students, who work together to develop possible solutions. These solutions become an integrated watershed management plan that meets the needs of all stakeholders.

A watershed is made up of water, soil, air and plant and animal communities, each of which can be affected by agriculture, forestry, fishery and other human activity. Students in the class analyze these factors as they work toward a coordinated management plan.

In one student project, Zack Robitaille, a geography master’s student, is addressing potential water contamination from radioactive waste stored at the West Valley facility. Robitaille also is looking at eroded material blocked at the Gilboa Dam and how to address the negative effects that result. Other students are focusing on biodiversity, soil erosion, flood protection and emergency response.

At the end of the semester, Renschler and Boyer will combine the students’ watershed management proposals into a report for participating stakeholders.

“This class basically goes in all the different directions that a research university wants to go. We’re doing research, learning and conducting outreach, all together,” Renschler says.

Some students in the class have benefited from the assistance and research expertise of Graham Hayes, a postdoctoral scientist working with Renschler.

Hayes is nearing the end of a two-year project looking at how to reduce sediment traveling down Cattaraugus Creek into Lake Erie. The project brings together stakeholders that include farming communities within the Seneca Nation of Indians that produce agricultural run-off, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for dredging the harbor where the creek empties into the lake.

By collecting data on soil erosion, Hayes and his colleagues have created computer models that help identify areas of the watershed that produce sediment at a higher rate. The researchers also are using modeling to test the efficiency of strategies for limiting erosion.

Students in Geography 470/570 Law 777 who are focusing on watershed modeling techniques in their management proposals have worked with Hayes to learn about effective modeling techniques.

In the spring semester, some of these students will run such models in a geographic information system (GIS) environment as part of the “Geo 475/575 Landscape Modeling with GIS” course to be taught by Renschler.