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Riverbank Erosion in Covington Explored in Video by NKU Professor

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Feoshia Davis.

A new environmentally focused collaboration at Northern Kentucky University is reaching out in unusual ways to help tackle the region’s environmental challenges.

The college’s Regional Ecological Stewardship Initiative, or RESI, is unique because this faculty-led group is comprised not only of biologists, engineers and ecologists but also historians, artists and sociologists.

Jan Hillard, NKU associate provost for Research, Graduate studies and Regional Stewardship, formed RESI after seeing firsthand different faculty members incorporating environmental study into student work. Some were obvious, such as the Center for Applied Ecology, which restores natural habitat on land throughout a nine-county region in Northern Kentucky from Carrollton to Maysville. On a smaller scale art, biology and literature programs were studying the local environment and working on related technology and field projects.

“Our faculty members were taking hundreds of students out in the field. Some of them were doing some groundbreaking research. They were coming from all different areas, art, biology, literature, music,” Hillard said.

Initially the group was going to focus on the Ohio River, but Hillard began to see NKU faculty and students had a far greater impact on the entire regional environment through their work.

“As time went on I met more faculty who, in one way or another, were dealing with the environment or ecology. As that list was growing, it seemed to me we had substantial academic capital,” he said.

By the fall of 2012 RESI held its first meeting.

Educating the community on environmental research and improvement

It’s not easy bringing together a group of faculty from different disciplines to work on an issue as big environmental quality. So RESI began finding ways to work together on existing projects and to collaborate one or two larger efforts.

“Normally, history wouldn’t be sitting down with biology or chemistry, but here it feels natural,” said Brian Hackett, director of the Northern Kentucky Public History program. “We are taking a holistic approach that engages the community, students and faculty. It really is visionary.”

The group meets once a month to discuss ideas and work on projects.

The group is researching clean water and air grants it could apply for, as well as the feasibility of creating a National Institute for the Citizen Scientist at NKU.

RESI’s first big success was a recent conference the university co-sponsored with the EPA, Technology to Empower Citizen Scientists (See Kyforward story here). The three-day conference was the starting point in a national effort to better equip and train citizen scientists to monitor and protect waterways across the United States.

“The conference is a great example of what we’re trying to do. We’re working to educate the public about area ecological conditions and to bring attention to what is going on in this region,” said RESI member Dick Durtsche, a NKU biological sciences professor.

New projects on the horizon

“In our planning, we’re shaping how we’ll work together, and work with outside groups. A lot of emails are being passed around. There is a lot of enthusiasm right now,” said Hackett.

Among the projects that spurred RESI is a new mobile application called Water Quality, that allows users to more efficiently log and identify water quality data from rivers, lakes and streams. It also features a digital field guide for identifying aquatic macroinvertebrates and a Pollution Tolerance Index calculator.

Developed by a team from NKU and the Foundation for Ohio River Education, the $4.99 app is currently available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch in the App Store. The university is working to further develop the app and create others through a $10,000 grant from the NKU Research Foundation.

Looking ahead, New Media Art professor Brad McCombs is — appropriately — planning a wide-ranging endeavor combining artistry and environmentalism that aims to bring attention to riverbank erosion in Covington. It’s at a place known as The Point, where the Licking River joins with the Ohio River near the Roebling Suspension Bridge.

Last year McCombs produced a short documentary (found below) on the challenges facing the riverbank, and is working with local city officials to meet some of those challenges through community and university partnerships.

Details are being worked out on what McCombs calls the Driftwood Institute, a public artwork that would include sculpture, native trees, grasses and shrubs, and other natural artistic elements. The Driftwood Institute plays dual roles of helping curb erosion and beautifying the area.

“…Where now sits rubble and weeds, will emerge a poetic design of sculpture intertwined with native plants and interactive elements. This artwork will engage the public about ecology, our local watershed and the history that bind us together,” McCombs explains in a summary of the potential project.

RESI projects are as wide-ranging as the faculty and departments that make it up. And that is exactly the point. The organization may still be in its early stages, but the enthusiasm and potential of its members is evident, said Hillard.

“We seized the opportunity to start this regional ecology stewardship initiative because we knew if we were going to take research, student work and community impact to the next level,” he said.

Feoshia Davis is a former reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer and is now freelance writer living in the Northern Kentucky area.

The video by Brad McCombs on Covington's eroding riverbank:

CORE • Covington • Ohio River • Erosion (documentary 2012) from brad mcco on Vimeo.