Jenna Bacic (ETM): A Summer with Cows, Streams, and DEQ

Field work in Cat Creek, Asheville, NC.
Navigating the Cat Creek site in Asheville, NC was particularly difficult because face-level brush or thorns surrounded the whole stream.

Fieldwork is anything but glamorous. On my first day out in the field I fell elbow-deep in a potent combination of wetland mud and cow poop. On my second day out in the field I ripped my pants trying to climb over a barbed wire fence.

I interned with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC-DEQ). NC-DEQ seeks to protect North Carolina’s natural resources and environment through regulation and mitigation. My official job title was the water quality assessment intern, which was within the Division of Mitigation Services (DMS). My internship was part of the REACH program, which connects college students with real-world opportunities to protect and preserve North Carolina’s natural resources.

I collected baseline water quality and stream health data from streams all across North Carolina. The data will be used later for comparison to show improvement after restoration has occurred. The streams I visited were all about to move into the construction phase of the mitigation process, meaning that the streams had been negatively impacted due to cattle, development, etc., and were set to be restored through man-made improvements to the stream channel, buffer width, vegetation, etc.

A typical week included 2 days of fieldwork and 3 days of office work. I was part of a small team of interns within DMS. I was the intern who “knows about water,” the other two interns specialized in vegetation/ecology and ArcGIS mapping.

The days spent in the office were my least favorite part of the internship. Cubicle life just isn’t for me. There are only so many Excel spreadsheets you can look at before you go a little insane. The office project I was assigned was completely separate from the fieldwork aspect of the internship. My specific task was to work with wetland hydrology data. This data consisted of wetland gauge readings from DMS projects across NC. The purpose of the gauges was to determine if the wetland was “meeting criteria” which meant that the water table was within 12 inches of the surface during the growing season.

I was expected to locate the wetland gauge data sent to NC-DEQ by private contractors, check the data for any errors or discrepancies, and then re-format the data into a specified template to be imported into a technical database. Once in the database, the wetland data would be used in a final mitigation report written by DMS (written at a later date once the site had reached the end of the mitigation process) to help show how successful the mitigation/restoration at a particular site was. In a nutshell, the office work I did was primarily data entry and quality control.

Days spent in the field were by far my favorite. It was 100 plus degrees, you’re required to wear long pants, most of the time you’re trudging through thorns and face-level brush, and there’s an abundance of local wildlife (HUGE spiders, ticks, cows, bees, and others). What’s not to love?

In actuality, I really did love the fieldwork. It was basically an all day bonding experience. A typical day of fieldwork started around 7am…none of us were morning people. We would pack the truck with our sampling equipment, then drive to the stream or streams we were sampling that day. The properties varied anywhere from an hour away to 4 hours away. Once at a site, we would calibrate our water quality meters and GPS, and then we would set off into the woods. At each site, we had an average 6 different sampling points along the stream. These points were plotted on a site map that we had access to while in the field via a tablet. We navigated to these points using the tablet as our guide.

Once at a sampling point, Gardner (the ecology intern) and I would gather water quality data using a YSI multi-meter and a pH probe. The YSI meter measured temperature (degrees Celsius), dissolved oxygen (% and mg/L), and conductivity (uS). We would also collect 3 bottle samples per site, which would be analyzed by the Division of Water Resources (DWR) lab for fecal coliform bacteria, suspended solids, and nitrates. At each sampling point we would also do a visual assessment of the stream health. We would record all the data on a form on the tablet, which would then be sent to the online database. More often than not, the water we were working with was pretty nasty. “Poopy water” became the adjective of choice.

Overall, the internship was a great experience and I was able to learn a lot about my field of study and meet a lot of really great and passionate people. I will say that a job focused in mitigation/regulatory work is not something I plan to pursue in the future. I found that the pace of working with mitigation/regulation is very tedious due to the paperwork and current legislation. However, I would love to have a job that incorporated some amount of fieldwork. I found that to be the most fulfilling skill that I acquired over the course of my internship because it allows you to really put in perspective what you’re trying to preserve. I’m thankful for the opportunity that NC-DEQ gave me and look forward to the next step in my professional future.

Editor’s Note: Jenna joined AECOM in Morrisville, NC, as an Environmental Scientist following her May 2016 graduation.