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A Family’s Well and the Human Impact of an Honors College Thesis

It was a family’s real-world issue with their well that inspired Julianne Robinson’s thesis project – and inspired one of the biggest lessons the honors ecological engineering major took from her research experience: the importance of human interaction.

This was something her teachers and mentors had been telling her all along. “I had an engineering class last year where the professor said, ‘If you’re not comfortable working with people, then this is not the field for you,’” she recalls. “I appreciate that I can’t just be in this comfortable space of science all the time but also learn how science interacts with politics, law and people.”

Julianne works on the family’s well at their property on the Oregon Coast Range.

It was also a personal connection that launched her thesis. Todd Jarvis, the director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State, suggested that she might be interested in working with the family of a graduate student who had drilled a well on their property in the coast range a few months before to supplement a spring that dried up in the summer. However the well didn’t produce water of reliable quality or quantity. Todd proposed using Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) to store spring water in the well and use it year-round.

Julianne’s thesis became a feasibility study on ASR, which involves taking surface water from rainwater, a river or spring and storing it underground to recover later. This is especially useful in areas where the water supply is seasonal, such as in the Oregon Coast Range. “Especially with impending climate change issues,” Julianne says, “and because a lot of water depends on the snow pack, people are looking for ways to extend the timing of water use.”

During the year and a half she worked on her thesis, she did research in hydrogeology and worked on a conceptual model. “It shows the topography on the surface so we can estimate where the water is and how it moves.” She also performed water quality tests and well tests, which required pumping water into the well and then measuring how long it took to recede out.

Her focus on a single household was not just a way of constraining her research; it also represented a unique aspect to her study. “ASR has traditionally been done on a bigger scale, for cities, so this is a new idea,” Julianne says.

The unique nature of her study led to some unique obstacles, as well. “ASR and the regulations are formulated for large-scale projects,” she says, “so the wording in the law was a barrier. I talked to people at the Water Resources Department trying to figure out the wording. One person in one department said one thing, and then another person in another department said another.”

Julianne’s mentors helped guide her through the process of research, writing and navigating the interpersonal and regulatory challenges. But she enjoyed that the thesis process as a whole was largely independent.

“It was kind of like taking an extended class for a year and a half, but hands-on. I liked the field work.It was cool to see things happen instead of just talking about them. We have equations to predict how water will move, but with groundwater, it’s pretty unpredictable. You have to try it to know – our equations are limited.” And these boundaries include human factors as well. “As an engineer, knowing the limitations of what we can estimate and design for [is essential].”

Julianne presented her research at the American Water Researchers Association (AWRA) in fall 2017, and in September, 2017 published an article with her mentors called “Domestic Well Aquifer Storage and Recovery Using Seasonal Springs” in Water Resources Impact, the AWRA’s professional publication.

But on top of these research accomplishments, it was particularly gratifying for Julianne to see the human impact of her work firsthand. “It was great to see water use in practice and to get to know the family that owned the well,” she says. “Now, this family can store water, which can provide a buffer.”

She also discovered that this family’s issue with groundwater on the coast was not unusual. “In the whole coast range, the geology is slow-moving and impermeable – it’s clay. So it’s common out there to drill wells and abandon them.”

One of her mentors even suggested that she could make a career as a consultant addressing this issue on the coast.

“I’m interested in groundwater and engineering. I’ve thought about eventually going into engineering consulting, maybe working internationally, somewhere where I can combine engineering and working with people from diverse backgrounds.”

She will begin along that path by serving in the United States Peace Corps in Panama. She left in June, 2018 immediately after graduating with her H.B.S., for her 27-month service. “This seemed like a good opportunity to apply what I’ve learned, and I’ve always liked learning about other cultures.”

Julianne would encourage other students to take advantage of the valuable experience of writing a thesis. “My advice is to view it as an opportunity, not something to be afraid of. I’ve had friends who have gotten jobs or have found their life passion through their thesis project. But [even if that doesn’t happen,] it’s a pretty cool opportunity to work closely with faculty and grad students and to apply what you’re learning, no matter what you do in the future.”

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