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Graduate Students - Brett Gerard

0607031222Research Assistant, Sustainability Solutions Initiative
Ph.D. Student, School of Earth and Climate Sciences

What problem/s are you working to solve?
My research is part of the “Safeguarding a Vulnerable Watershed” project which focuses on the contributing watershed of Sebago Lake, the principal water supply for the ~200,000 residents of greater Portland. With increased development pressure in the watershed and predicted climate change, future lake water conditions are uncertain. My research focuses on the condition of lowland tributaries within the watershed which govern the flow of water, sediment, nutrients, and pollutants into the lake. I am interested in the lowland tributary network primarily because maintenance of lake water quality requires maintenance of this system. My primary interest is in the influence of climate and human modifications, both in-stream and on the landscape, on the flow regime and channel bottom conditions of these tributaries. Flow regime modification is considered one of the most serious threats to the integrity of riverine systems as the ecological community of these systems has adapted to a certain distribution of in-stream flow conditions. My interest in channel bottom conditions relates to the functionality of the hyporheic zone, a fluctuating zone beneath or adjacent to river systems where surface water and groundwater mix. Exchange between the river and this zone can have a strong influence on a river’s thermal dynamics, nutrient cycling, and ecosystem integrity.

What progress are you making towards solutions?
Much of my work recently has focused on the calibration of a distributed watershed model for one of the major tributaries to Sebago Lake, Northwest River. This model allows for the analysis of flow regime alterations resulting from various climate change and land use change scenarios. Preliminary results from this model have indicated substantial alterations as a result of land cover modifications (8%-20% developed as opposed to the current condition of ~3% developed), drainage efficiency alterations, and the removal of a moderately sized dam. These changes all increased both the magnitude and duration of peak runoff events, which has important implications for the physical structure and ecological viability of the riverine ecosystem. I am currently working to better calibrate the model and expand it to other sub-watersheds. Additionally, with the help of my adviser and a fellow graduate student, we began a geomorphic assessment of lowland tributaries around Sebago in the summer of 2013. In the summer of 2014 we plan to continue this survey and begin installing instrumentation at various locations to monitor hyporheic zone conditions.

How could your findings contribute to a more sustainable future in Maine and beyond?
Understanding the implications of land cover changes and climate change is fundamental for the development of sustainable water management practices. Flow regime alterations and changes to hyporheic zone function adversely affect the integrity of riverine systems and consequently of downstream lake systems. My research will quantify the impact of land cover changes and climate change on the flow regime and hyporheic exchange in tributaries of Sebago Lake to support the development of sustainable water management practices for the region. This research additionally has implications for similar post-glaciated, non-mountainous, inland tributary systems of the United States.

Why did you decide to join SSI?
I appreciated the interdisciplinary approach SSI utilizes to resolve environmental issues by addressing both the concerns of communities and the requirements of healthy ecosystems.

What’s the best part about collaborating on SSI research projects?
Learning about the different perspectives and challenges faced by researchers in other disciplines who are working on similar issues.

Where’s your favorite place in Maine?
I’d prefer not to give an exact location, but it’s along a river…

What’s your ultimate Maine experience?
Fishing a quiet Maine stream.

Mud season survival strategy?
Ignorance. What’s mud season?

What sustains you?
A mixture of family, time in the outdoors, various athletic activities, and reading.

When do you expect to graduate, and what do you see as the next step in your academic or professional career?
I expect to graduate sometime around 2017. I prefer not to speculate on my future career – I only hope to continue studying rivers and their interplay with the surrounding landscape.

How has your SSI training to date impacted the trajectory of your graduate studies and your plans for the future?
My SSI training has furthered my interest in interdisciplinary approaches to sustainability issues.

See more about Brett’s project: Safeguarding a Vulnerable Watershed

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