Thursday, January 21, 2010

Confluence Field Station will enhance efforts of National Great Rivers Research and Education Center

Confluence Field Station will enhance efforts of National Great Rivers Research and Education Center

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When policymakers, planners and others need answers to questions about oceans, they turn to places like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts or the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. But where does society turn for answers to questions about rivers, the waterways that are so vital to life between the coasts? How about Illinois, home of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center?

The Center was formed in 2001 as a partnership of the University of Illinois, the Illinois Natural History Survey and Lewis and Clark Community College, which is located in the town of Godfrey and the site of its headquarters. This puts the Center near the confluence of three great rivers, the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Illinois—an ideal location for the research, outreach and education it fosters. [Artist's rendering of the Field Station's exterior when finished, showing green roof and natural stone wall.]

This Spring the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center will celebrate a great step forward with the opening of a new, state-of-the art facility, the Confluence Field Station, located right on the Mississippi River at Alton, adjacent to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam.

With the first phase of construction nearly complete, people associated with the Center are excited to talk about the features that minimize the Field Station’s environmental impact. These include a solar system for heating water; wind- and river-driven turbines for generating electricity; a host of measures for using water efficiently; state of the art heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; and extensive use of recycled materials in construction and furnishing.

On top of all this, the building is a pleasure to visit, which I did recently in company with a group of faculty members from the U of I: stonework on the walls evokes bluffs overlooking the river, big windows facing the river offer expansive views, and water features will bring the river itself right into the building. [Chancellor Robert Easter welcomes visiting University of Illinois faculty members on a visit to the Field Station in January.]

While it is laudable that the Confluence Field Station is a model of “green” construction, what’s even more significant is the work of research and education that will take place there.

According to executive director Gary Rolfe, the Center provides multiple benefits to a wide constituency. Construction and staffing of the new facility have created jobs and provided a boost to the regional economy, which will also receive a long-term lift from the researchers and visitors who come to it.

But the research and education enabled by the station will also benefit the many more people whose lives and livelihoods are bound up with the Mississippi and its tributaries. That broad group includes everyone from commodity transporters and commercial fishermen to sport anglers and other recreational users of the river, as well as people in communities that depend on rivers for their water supply.

“Other river research efforts have looked at various aspects of these large, complex systems in isolation,” says Rolfe. “Our goal is to establish a holistic program, one that encompasses land, water and people. Ultimately we want to facilitate management of large river systems that protects ecological values and enhances them for use by both present and future generations.”

The first researchers to take up residence at the Field Station will be a team headed by John Chick, an aquatic ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. Chick’s group has already been working to monitor water quality, fish communities, macroinvertebrates, and aquatic vegetation along a 50-mile stretch of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers for over 10 years.

Working at the new facility will enable them to conduct aquatic research in simulated and controlled river environments, thanks in part to large concrete channels dubbed “mesocosms” that will contain flowing water and plankton pumped directly from the Mississippi River.

The Confluence Field Station will also facilitate efforts to educate people about rivers and engage them in conservation work. According to Marcia Lochman, director of environmental education at the Center, these efforts include internships for college undergraduates and graduate students, as well as a variety of programs for school-age children and adults.

In recognition of its ongoing excellent work in community and public engagement, the Center was recently awarded the University of Illinois 2009-2010 Campus Award for Excellence in Public Engagement.

The Confluence Field Station is slated to open in May of this year and will offer a speaker series and tours to the public. Displays in the lobby will feature the river and its watershed and will emphasize the broader mission of the Center, that of connecting interactive elements of nature--land, water, plants, people and wildlife.

For now you can see photos and video of the Confluence Field Station at the Web site of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center at