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Baylor’s miniature streams may help scientists improve water quality around the state.

By Matt Pene

The recently opened Baylor Experimental Aquatic Research (BEAR) facility, a joint venture between Baylor University and the City of Waco, was designed to help Baylor scientists understand how pollution moves through streams.

The only one of its kind at an academic institution in the United States and one of a few in the world, the BEAR facility is outfitted with 12 miniature streams, which can be manipulated to look and act like streams found across Central Texas and in other regions. The streams are 60 feet long and allow researchers to test aquatic contaminants in a controlled setting. In addition to the streams, the research facility is outfitted with 24 model wetlands.

Water managers will be able to use the data collected at the facility as the scientific basis for improved water quality management strategies. The first studies identify nutrient levels that are protective of the quality of source waters flowing into Texas reservoirs.

“This experimental facility allows us to ask and answer some questions that can’t be fully understood in the field or in the lab,” says Bryan Brooks, Baylor assistant professor of environmental studies. “When we couple what the research tells us at BEAR with observations in the field, we will be able to link cause and effect.”

For example, Waco’s drinking water has had taste and odor problems for several years, stemming from algae blooms caused by high concentrations of a common nutrient found in Waco’s reservoir, Lake Waco. BEAR could help in the effort to unravel that issue.

“BEAR allows us to look at different alternatives on a pilot scale,” says Tom Conry, water quality administrator for the City of Waco. “We can look at biomanipulating certain factors that could ultimately lead to the better protection of our drinking water.”

Researchers also are able to study how long a certain contaminant, like a pesticide or another chemical, stays in the stream, how it breaks down and the overall impact on wildlife and water quality. To date, there is little research into the environmental effects of many new aquatic contaminants.

“We can identify critical concentrations of a certain nutrient or contaminant,” says Ryan King, Baylor assistant biology professor. “We will be able to know that if we have X amount of a certain contaminant, what the impact would be on the stream and wildlife.”

The BEAR lab was constructed by Baylor students, faculty and city workers, using city-donated and Baylor-purchased supplies. The project is funded by a grant from the Altria Foundation, with significant matching support from Baylor and Waco.

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