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Keeping a Watchful Eye on Ecosystems

Originally published in the College of Science magazine Periodic Elements, Fall 2010

For nearly thirty years, Chris Jones and his colleagues Donald Kelso and — more recently — Dann Sklarew have been observing and studying the health of the Potomac River. The research of these Department of Environmental Science and Policy faculty members, as well as their collective vision of an on-the-water, hands-on science facility, was a major impetus in the founding three years ago of the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC).

PEREC inherited several projects from the group, including their long-term study and monitoring of the ecosystems in Gunston Cove, a bay of the tidal Potomac in southern Fairfax County. Their observations, says Jones, PEREC’s director, has revealed evidence that “the efforts of Fairfax County and other jurisdictions in the area have resulted in a partial restoration of Gunston Cove.” The improvement comes despite the dramatic residential and business development in the Northern Virginia region. In this way, “PEREC has made a significant contribution to the area’s biodiversity and to Chesapeake Bay restoration,” Jones says. “We are learning that management efforts, if bold enough, can mitigate the impact of increased human populations on our natural ecosystems.”

PEREC’s most pressing issues, according to both Jones and Sklarew, PEREC’s associate director, are continued improvement of water clarity, which allows light to reach underwater vegetation, and restoration of aquatic vegetation, which provides a habitat for fish and other animals to nest or hide. Another priority is educating K- 12 students and science teachers in the region about watershed stewardship through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration- supported Chesapeake Bay B-WET program.

PEREC’s endeavors with these students include “bringing technology into the classroom with live data,” says Cindy Smith, PEREC’s education director.

PEREC also provides a significant involvement for Mason’s environmental science students, and both undergraduate and graduate students work as field interpreters when the middle school students visit the outdoor labs. Smith points out that a number of retired Prince William County science teachers also work as field interpreters. “I love the people we work with,” she says. “It’s hard to have a bad day when you see how much fun they are having.”

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