Flatbrook River in northwestern New Jersey, one of our sampling sites.

When I told my friends what I was doing this summer, most of them responded with something like “Really? But there are no forests in New Jersey!” Now I have my own proof for them that the heavily urbanized state really does have wilderness.

I am part of the program “Environmental Research on Forest Lakes” Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). It’s an internship funded by the National Science Foundation and hosted by Montclair State University in New Jersey. Along with ten other students from many different colleges, I am living in a NJ School of Conservation cabin in the beautiful Stokes State Forest. I can wake up, walk outside, and see a doe and her baby fawn less than twenty meters from my porch. I canoe in the lake nearly every evening and catch turtles. It’s pretty fantastic, and to top it all off, I’m being paid to be here!

Despite the REU title, my research will actually be about rivers. Two other students and I make up the Ecology & Environmental Chemistry team. We will be examining how urbanization affects water quality. As anyone who’s flown into Newark Airport knows, the northeastern coast of New Jersey has an extremely industrial landscape. The Passaic River, which empties into Newark Bay, is one of the top ten most polluted rivers in the United States. Yuck! Generally, the river flows from west to east, beginning in a forested rural area and moving through the increasingly developed land. We will be taking water samples from over twenty sites along the river and analyzing them for forms of nitrogen, phosphorus, and microbes. This should help us pinpoint areas where these pollutants are entering and what could be done in these specific areas.

My focus is on nitrogen, which is actually found as ammonia, nitrite/nitrate, and organic forms. It ends up in rivers and oceans mostly from storm water runoff carrying excess fertilizer from fields and lawns. Why is that an issue? Think the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Too much nitrogen can make too much algae, and too much algae can make water too dark and too deoxygenated for healthy ecosystems. It’s called eutrophication, yuck!

We will also be sampling the Flatbrook River in northwest New Jersey that is almost completely surrounded by state forests. It’s considered to be the cleanest river in the state, and I find it quite lovely. Sampling water all along this river will give us an understanding of how a river would be without the effects of urbanization.

The proposal is typed up, I’ve given the presentation, and this week I go into the laboratory to prepare for testing. Next week the field work begins!