UCA Researchers Awarded Grant on Ouachita River Basin Water Quality

Student removes organisms from a tray of water

A student researcher studies samples taken from waterways.

University of Central Arkansas researchers have received funding from the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment’s Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to study human impacts on water quality in the Ouachita River Basin.

Halvor Halvorson, assistant professor of biology; Ginny Adams, associate dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics; and Reid Adams, professor of biology, are leading the research in the Ouachita River Basin that will aid in developing and revising water quality criteria for the ecoregion of Arkansas known as the Gulf Coast Plains. The DEQ award is for $158,250 over two years.

“The state is interested in having a better understanding of human impacts on water quality so that they can better establish protocols and criteria to determine how a water system has degraded,” said Halvorson.

The DEQ is keen to study this waterway because of the limited available data, particularly in the lowland streams of the basin. Like the state’s larger rivers, humans impact streams through pollution and land use. The data UCA researchers collect will determine how these influences are negatively affecting streams and what action is needed on a state level.

“That’s where our role comes in,” said Halvorson. “In this group, we have expertise in fish ecology, invertebrate ecology and water chemistry. We’re interested in how those are all linked together.”

Student holds up an organism with tweezers

Over the course of the grant, at least 20 undergraduates have taken part in the project.

The team includes a group of undergraduate students at UCA and graduate students hired from out of state. The researchers collect samples from these streams — gathering anything part of the ecology to be analyzed, from fish to algae. They also monitor streams on a monthly basis, with teams using sensors that measure the water’s oxygen levels.

Taken back to campus laboratories, researchers work with the samples to get a sense of the streams’ status quo. A big factor in their research is to study the fish population by identifying which species are present and their relative health. Many populations will dwindle under the degraded conditions, but some can maintain their sizes, according to Reid Adams.

“We use that kind of information to interpret the biotic integrity of these streams,” said Reid Adams.

The streams are not a picturesque babbling brook – its waterways are often clogged with leaves, algae, and sediment. Life can thrive in these systems, even if the water appears dirty from an untrained perspective. According to Halvorson, defining what a clean stream looks like in this area is one of the knowledge gaps the team is addressing.

These lowland systems can be challenging to get data, according to Reid Adams. “It’s hard to move around in them,” he said. “They tend to have soft, muddy bottoms with significant debris and leaf buildup.”

Beyond the science, the experience has been beneficial to students as budding researchers. Over the course of the grant, at least 20 undergraduates have taken part in the project, working both in the field and on campus.

“These are skill sets and experiences that these students are getting,” said Ginny Adams. “And many are conducting side projects related to this work, as they answer questions that come from this research.”