A Question Of Water Quality

CE grad research focuses on the effect of hormones on water sources

As a child growing up in the New Jersey Highlands, Heather Gall was surrounded by nature and loved it. She’s now studying so that she can make a career of protecting the environment.

Gall, who completed a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering in December and is staying with the program for a doctorate, focuses on water quality. Her research is part of a $700,000 project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency that is examining the effect of hormones leached off agricultural fields into nearby water sources. Gall’s major advisor, civil engineering professor Chad Jafvert, is a co-principal investigator on the three-year study. Researchers from forestry and agronomy are also collaborators.

Growth hormones given to livestock end up in their manure, which is spread on fields and eventually finds its way into streams and tile drains. Even minute concentrations of estrogen- and testosterone-mimicking hormones can impact aquatic life such, as fish. Manure is typically applied to fields in the spring, which corresponds with spawning season. Trace amounts of hormones can influence sex changes in fish, changing their secondary sex characteristics and, in extreme cases, rendering the majority of the population one gender and severely limiting their ability to reproduce.

Gall was responsible for setting up seven real-time monitoring stations at the research site, which is located west of campus at Purdue’s Animal Science Research and Education Center. The stations contain data loggers, automated samplers, 12-volt rechargeable batteries, solar panels as back-up power sources, and sensors that measure water temperature, level, and velocity in drainage ditches. From the information gathered, the research team can calculate the volumetric flow rate and hormone concentrations.

Hormone concentrations in manure and surface waters are not currently regulated, according to Gall, who says she would like to have limits imposed on the amounts applied onto fields. “I would like to see the results of this research used to develop best management practices so that farmers know the best time to apply manure to reduce its potential to affect fish,” she says. “I would like to see the best practices incorporated into policy making. All this data is great, but if we don’t do anything with it, we’re not going to solve the problem.”

Along with an academic commitment to environmental issues, Gall is working to make her community a cleaner place. She’s a member of the university’s Boiler Green Initiative, a student organization dedicated to promoting environmentally friendly behaviors, and was recently appointed to West Lafayette’s Go Greener Commission.

In addition to monitoring hormones at the Animal Science Research and Education Center, nutrient monitoring will be incorporated into the project as part of Gall’s PhD research. Indiana is part of the Mississippi River drainage basin, and therefore nutrients applied to fields in this study area ultimately reach the Gulf of Mexico, triggering the large-scale hypoxia known as the “Dead Zone.” Studying the release of nutrients from the source waters (tile drains and agricultural ditches) will help address this issue, which Gall notes is causing devastation to aquatic life as well as the fishing industry.