ORONO, ME - The Maine Water Resources Research Institute, a program of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, has launched three new projects concerning the effects of climate change on lake chemistry and drinking water quality, processes and perceptions of metallic mineral mining, and education about vernal pools.

The drinking water project focuses on extreme rain and snow events that are increasing with climate change and threatening Maine’s high-quality water supplies due to associated rapid runoff. Renewed interest in mining—and subsequent revision of strict regulations governing the establishment of metallic mineral mining operations in Maine—spurred the WRRI to fund the mining project. The vernal pool outreach project will educate K-12 students and the general public about these unique, ephemeral, small water resources.

As the state’s congressionally authorized water institute, Maine WRRI provides essential leadership for water research, education, training, and information dissemination across the state. It is integrated within the Mitchell Center at the University of Maine.

The Mitchell Center is working to solve problems at the intersection of environmental, social, and economic issues. John Peckenham, WRRI co-director along with Mitchell Center director David Hart, notes that the three new projects being funded by WRRI are very much aligned with the Mitchell Center’s mission and goals.

“We are taking the Mitchell Center’s emphasis on stakeholder-engaged, solutions-driven, interdisciplinary research and using it to strengthen our WRRI projects,” Peckenham says. He adds, “We are asking those we fund to show us how their work is going to benefit the people of Maine. And, as part of this, we also have them define who their partners are outside of UMaine. This is increasingly important because of our commitment to address the needs and concerns of diverse stakeholders in and beyond Maine.”

As our climate changes, so do extreme rain and snow events, which have increased in frequency in the Northeastern U.S. by more than 50 percent since the 1950s. For example, on September 30, 2015, Bangor received 5.27 inches of rain in one day. This increase in the rate and intensity of precipitation events and associated rapid runoff is threatening water supplies—more than half of which come from 46 lakes dotted around the state.

These extreme events wash organic matter into lakes that can ultimately cause a build up of what’s called “dissolved organic carbon,” which can trigger algal blooms, taste and odor problems, and, when treated, can form chlorinated organic compounds that are a health concern.

“Over the years we have seen the amount of dissolved organic carbon increasing in lakes, and it’s unclear how much extreme rain events are contributing to the problem,” says professor Jasmine Saros of the Climate Change Institute and School of Biology & Ecology who leads the Assessing the Vulnerability of Maine’s Drinking Water Resources to Extreme Precipitation Events project.

WRRI researchers will take an integrated approach to assess both the ecological and economic vulnerability of Maine’s drinking water lakes—and the communities dependent on them—when extreme precipitation events occur.

Maine has a legacy of mining massive sulfide deposits for metals including copper and zinc. While there are currently no operational metal mines in the state, the prospect of rising metal prices driven by growing world populations and affluence, and the existence of several rich deposits in the state, have renewed interest in metallic mineral mining in Maine.

Understanding resident perceptions about this type of mining, and potential impacts on the economy, quality of place, and natural resources in Maine, is crucial as the legislature considers changes to the laws governing mining activities. The Mining in Maine: Exploring Public Perceptions project, which is led by Sandra De Urioste-Stone of the UMaine School of Forest Resources and the Mitchell Center, will involve both qualitative and quantitative social science research to understand public perceptions.

Vernal pools provide habitat for specialized plants and animals. They are considered to be a distinctive type of wetland usually devoid of fish, and thus allow the safe development of natal amphibian and insect species unable to withstand competition or predation by fish.

In the interdisciplinary Vernal Pools for Me project, led by Aram Calhoun and Kristine Hoffmann of the UMaine Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology, primary school children will learn about the diversity of animals that use vernal pools and concepts of conservation and science through a diverse set of newly created outreach materials, including coloring books, a field guide, and songs. Middle school and high school students will learn from web-based videos, and the general public will have access to engaging web-based outreach material such as social media and blogs.

“We have a wide range of stakeholders eager for our products, including local groups like the Stillwater Montessori School, Hirundo Wildlife Refuge, and land trusts,” says Hoffmann. “Our regional partners, like Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, will share our materials beyond Maine.” All of this material will be available online for free at www.vernalpools.me.

Notes Peckenham, “The idea is to get K-12 students to ask questions: what are vernal pools, what’s going on in them, why do we think they’re important to understand? And for adults, some of whom may be unfamiliar with vernal pools, to now realize these are part of how a particular landscape functions in a natural way and, if we develop that land, could we totally destroy some important part of our ecosystem?”

For more information, contact David Sims, Communications and Outreach Coordinator, Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at (207) 581-3244 or david.sims@umit.maine.edu.