The Deerfield River is situated snugly in the northwest region of Massachusetts. It winds its way through thick New England forests and flows over boulders and rocks, attracting vacationers and local residents alike. However, not all visitors come purely for recreation. It is here in the Deerfield River watershed that Brian Yellen of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Geosciences Department conducted research for his master’s degree thesis on the link between water loss and hydroelectric dam activity.
Dr. Yellen received funding for this fieldwork from the U.S. Geological Survey through the Water Resources Institutes Program, which provides funding for a competitive research grant program run by the Massachusetts Water Resources Research Center. This program allows the WRRC to provide both undergraduate and graduate students with extraordinary opportunities to conduct independent research on water resources related concerns specific to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Funding received from this program gives researchers the chance to broaden their horizons and develop new, complex, and/or interdisciplinary research.
“The impact was that [the funding] was crucial,” says Yellen when asked about how the grant affected his research.
“I came to UMass with full funding for four semesters but no summer support and so the funding I got from the Water Resources Institute gave me the ability to do field work…without that support I wouldn’t have gotten any field work done. I wouldn’t have collected the data that ultimately led to the publication.”
What led him down the path of water resource conservation, according to Yellen, was a desire to find a practical application for his undergraduate background in geological science.
“I wanted to pursue something that would use geological skills and the knowledge I built during undergrad for something a little bit more practical and something a little more at human time scales than a lot of the geology stories, so that drew me into water resources.”
Dr. Yellen’s graduate research looked into whether the water intermittently released from the hydroelectric dam on the Deerfield River was actually causing water to be lost from the river. With each release from the dam, some water would be driven into aquifers along the river banks. The excess water in these aquifers would then be taken up by adjacent trees and never returned to the flow of the river. Dr. Yellen’s work supported this hypothesis through careful monitoring of water levels, dam releases, and the river’s flow at various points downstream.
Though his work on the Deerfield River is ongoing, it has taken a backseat to some other vital projects under the umbrella of water research. Dr. Yellen is in the planning and executing process of two other projects. His research in-progress focuses on the study of salt marsh sediments to determine the rise of sea level on Cape Cod - an issue dear to many Massachusetts residents. His other upcoming project centers on the removal of defunct dams, a process particularly relevant to the old mill towns of the northeastern United States. Dr. Yellen intends to study how the large amount of sediment released by the removal of the dams affects the delicate balance of estuaries at the ends of the rivers in question. This research will be central in helping the United States, particularly the northeast, deal with these dam removals in a way that ensures the continued health of estuary ecosystems and the effective use of the nation’s rivers.
Since the early days of his research, Dr. Yellen has gained extensive experience in his chosen field. He has spoken to several watershed associations and planning boards on the importance of his research and its applications. However, his first research opportunity with the WRIP remains with him.
“This was sort of my first experience with doing original research,” he reflects, “...the most important takeaway was that the process of discovery, the process of science, really just entails collecting data, making observations about the data, and trying to support a hypothesis. And you don’t need to be brilliant and you don’t need to be accomplished to do it well.”
The task of amassing and analyzing enormous amounts of data can be intimidating for any first time researcher. It is possible for even the most seasoned scientists to lose themselves in the details and statistics and forget the stories that first ignited their passion. However, when asked if his journey into research that started in part through Massachusetts WRRC funding was overwhelming, Yellen’s response speaks for itself:
“It’s a lot of fun.”