Many people don’t think twice about their water source, or how new roads, parking lots and buildings to accommodate a growing population can harm water quality. But as Samuel Shoge discovered in his research, more asphalt and concrete means more pollution in local streams and lakes.
After collecting data from aerial photos and satellite images and using the comprehensive ArcGIS software, Shoge mapped the increase of impervious surfaces, areas in which water does not infiltrate the ground, in the Alamance County area from 1984 to 2010. He overlapped that information against existing water quality data during the same period.
“I wanted to see how well our data correlated with quality water data,” said Shoge, an environmental studies major and geographic information science minor who graduated in May 2011. “It matched up pretty well, actually.”
Besides establishing an inverse relationship between the two – as the percentage of impervious surfaces increased, the quality of water decreased – Shoge was able to identify eight high-risk watersheds in Little Alamance Creek that did not support sustainable levels of biological integrity.
Shoge said his research is a good place for local officials to start thinking about ways to plan future growth. For instance, by using existing techniques, technologies and methods that accommodate for natural percolation in the soil, they not only can improve water quality but also curtail flash floods. Officials can also use this research to prioritize spending by focusing on improving first those watersheds that need it the most, particularly if funds are limited, he added.
“This project has already provided valuable data that is being used by the City of Burlington to address EPA-mandated water quality improvement initiatives,” said Ryan Kirk, an assistant professor of geography and environmental studies at Elon who supervised Shoge's research. “His final report will be distributed to a variety of local and regional organizations who are striving to improve water quality in our waterways.”
Shoge said water quality should concern everyone because as the sources of fresh water diminish across the globe, water potentially could be the next resource at the center of international conflicts.
“If we continue to pollute the sources we have, water will be rarer and rarer,” he said. Coupled with continued population growth, that does not paint a positive outlook for the future. “We seem to be stuck in a rut. We’re so used to expanding, it will take a paradigm shift to be able to grow smarter.”
Shoge conducted his research during the 2010 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, which allowed him to spend eight weeks working with Kirk. He presented his findings at the North Carolina GIS Conference and at Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.