Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A Lesson in Geology: Soil Sampling at Standing Rush

Soil color chart in hand, science in action at Standing Rush -- today marked the first time in our tenure
that formal soil science was conducted on the property

Early this week, I received a phone call from ODNR's Office of Coastal Management asking if Standing Rush would be willing to participate in an evolving project that will be conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in Vicksburg, Mississippi. As it turns out, discussions had been underway for some time, and the window of opportunity had arisen to host two research scientists from the Corps' ERDC Environmental Laboratory -- one a soil scientist and the other a wetland ecologist -- to do sampling throughout northwest Ohio this week.

A core being collected from a vegetated
region of our Rest Pond (West Marsh)
Both arrived in Ohio last night and I accompanied them into the marsh first thing this morning. While we will be learning more about this collaboration as it evolves, the basic premise seems to hinge on a better understanding of baseline concentrations of fundamental nutrients (primarily phosphorus and nitrogen derivatives) and several elemental trace metals with the goal of developing a predictive model as to how much "capacity" wetland soils/sediments can house and ultimately prevent from entering into adjacent waterways -- particularly (in our case) Lake Erie.

So said more simply, if we know how much "bad stuff" is in the soil around and under the water of the marsh today, we may be able to better predict how much more "bad stuff" it can "absorb" (again, keeping it in layman's terms) before excess nutrients just bypass the system and enter the lake. Obviously, there are a lot of complicating factors -- e.g., one big one: what plants might be living in those soils and at what densities -- but this is the heart of the research. If a basic premise is that wetlands serve as kidneys ("filtering out" what we don't want to end up in the lake), it makes sense to build confirmation of this capability quantitatively.

The sample tube being analyzed just after extraction
As with about every aspect of the marsh -- or any wetland, for that matter -- there is a lot more going on below the surface than meets the eye. The field crew was efficient, energetic and enthusiastic in their approach and within minutes of sharing a boat, I was learning. [I actually assisted with sediment sampling early in my career when I worked for a civil engineering firm, but the motivations for those sampling efforts were quite different from today's.)

I had to smile as my guests scrambled across the deck of the jon boat to take measurements, record data, and even capture pictures. Because Standing Rush hosts some pretty unique geology, their sampling produced some pretty "funky" cores (contents of each clear tube pushed into the bottom substrate to allow for sample collection). I was reminded of fishermen at a landing net each time the sample tube was extracted -- eyes would light up in anticipation and then broad smiles would emerge each time the contents became visible above the water. "Clean" marl (almost snow-white and often seemingly free of imperfections), waxy clays in blues and grays, and discrete layering of mineralogy and organics were the highlights of the day. Such diversity is a hallmark of lake front property where deposition is directly impacted by varying water levels, wind, and wave energy. Change is the only constant through time.

Bright marl sandwiched between layers of
organic deposition (dark brown) and mineral-rich
clays (grays on top and bottom of core)
Our guests appreciated the crisp, dry fall air and autumn colors -- as well as the unique and varied composition of the substrates in our marsh. With LOTS of rain in the forecast for the balance of the week, I hope they can keep their positive momentum going. Tomorrow they head to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Maumee Bay State Park. They will then turn their attention upstream -- sampling soils in the headwaters of some of the Western Basin's largest tributaries. Makes sense: when working to understand nutrient transport into Lake Erie, one can't limit the discovery to the lake shore . . . best to include the farm fields themselves as well.

NOTE: It is a complete oversight that after more than 18 months of journal entries about Standing Rush, I have yet to write about marl and the importance this strange calcium-rich "mud" has played on the history of the property. I promise to circle back and tell the tale of the Sandusky Portland Cement Company and Medusa Cement very soon. As we have come to understand it, if these industrial endeavors of the late 1800s and early 1900s would not have discovered rich deposits of these chalky-white deposits between what is now Standing Rush and Cleveland, our marsh may have been lost to other uses a long time ago. Again, more on this interesting history lesson soon.