Ashore momentarily with Jo Beth Mullens, water advocate
Approaching a long pine table next to a window with a sunny view of a vegetable garden and blue birdbath, Jo Beth Mullens, associate professor of geography and environmental studies, carries two clear glasses of water. She sets them on the table near cartons of takeout lunch and, scattered around a laptop, her papers for the Proceedings of the World Water Congress, the Journal of the American Water Resource Association, and the Proceedings of the New England-St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society.
Once you know how much of her life Mullens has spent waist deep in rivers, hauling out trash; in canoes outfitted with testing equipment; in kayaks, handing out questionnaires to boaters who'd rather sip their cocktails; in planes en route to water policy conferences; and in front of a laptop, cranking out papers on water policy – once you know how tirelessly she advocates for something most people never think about – you look at a glass of water with new eyes.
Really Seeing Water
"Many people in the developed world don't think much about water," says Mullens as she crosses the kitchen/dining area, her blue dress waving over her Tevas. She opens the door to let a gray cat, Glacier, slip outside.
"When you can simply turn on the tap and clean water flows endlessly, it's hard to truly understand its value," says Mullens, her speech softened, though not slowed, by a faded drawl.
She pulls a chair up to the table with a thin strong arm.
"Where I grew up in Arkansas, my backyard was a Corps of Engineers lake. My parents were very involved in and excited about organizing a dam dedication ceremony that President Kennedy appeared at in 1963 – whether it has anything to do with my love of water I don't know, but I was born nine months after Kennedy visited. The lake created my view of nature. It was probably my 'environmental connector,' as it's called in environmental studies."
Mullens, who now makes her home in Vermont on a seven-and-a-half-acre lot with a stream running through its thickets, relates to water in a hands-on, feet-in way. And she brings her students in with her: One of the first things she did after arriving in Keene in 1995 was launch the Ashuelot River Cleanup, which has become an annual event, bringing hundreds of students and other community members to the river.
"The Ashuelot was a de facto dump," says Mullens, an unequivocal expression in her wide-set blue eyes and the set of her small chin. She and her students and Mary Jensen, the campus recycling director, have hauled out computer monitors, couches, a parking meter, a gun, more than 150 shopping carts, and other "treasures from the river," Mullens says wryly, "that were waiting for the archeologists of the future."
It seems that Mullens emerges from the water only to plumb the depths of policy and research papers. Non-point-source pollution, bank erosion, dam removal, river restoration, and people's perceptions of water quality are all areas in which she's done research and policy study. Like tributaries, her analyses feed into the work of community groups.
"I've married the different areas – research, teaching, and community work," she explains. "We need academic links to the rivers. My goal is to do research that can be used to protect the resource."
A Snapshot of the Connecticut
Once called the best-landscaped sewer in New England, the Connecticut River was given a new lease on life by the Clean Water Act of 1972, which required regulation of point-source pollution. However, concern remains over non-point-source pollution (contaminants in runoff from parking lots, street cleaning, golf courses, and other nonspecific sources), and the severity of bank erosion is debated.
Some believe the extent of erosion is cause for alarm, citing the 550 feet of shoreline in North Walpole that was scoured out in 1996 by a flood caused by ice jammed behind Bellows Falls Dam. Shortly after that event, Mullens received an Environmental Protection Agency grant, administered by the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, to study erosion in the upper basin of the Connecticut River.
In June 1997 she gathered together camera, inventory forms, topographical maps, canoe, and quarts of sun block. With students Christina Burt '02 and Jason Mahon '97, Mullens paddled 83 miles of the Connecticut. They put the boat in the water about 25 days that summer, starting by midmorning and canoeing a stretch of the river each day. From Charlestown, N.H., to the Massachusetts border they documented the location and severity of riverbank erosion.
The Connecticut River Local Advisory Council for the Wantastiquet Region and other groups will use Mullens's erosion inventory, which she calls a "snapshot" of the river, as a planning tool when they make decisions about development and erosion control. It may, for example, be a stepping stone for studies on whether the scouring in North Walpole was caused by the dam or was destined to happen.
83 Miles by Canoe
Christina Burt '02 spent the summer of 1997 canoeing 83 miles of the Connecticut River with another student, Jason Mahon '97, and Professor Jo Beth Mullens. She remembers the trip:
One day it was very windy and we had huge waves. Even though we were paddling as hard as we could to go downriver, the wind blew us northward upriver. It was like we were on a conveyer belt.
Mostly we paddled while Professor Mullens took photos of the bank and filled out forms to document erosion. It's hard to row a canoe perfectly smooth if the water is rough. I wasn't an expert paddler. I hadn't spent a lot of time in canoes. But by the end of that summer I sure had. I have strong arms, and they got a lot stronger.
Dr. Mullens always asked us what we thought was going on and listened attentively to our ideas, even though she knew ten times better what that was. I recognized cut banks, where the strongest flow was coming in, and then, a little downriver, the point bar, where the force of that flow deposited soil.
I'm grateful to have had the opportunity. It made me think about people building too close to the river and how it's natural for a river to have a huge flood every hundred years. And about how fertile the soil is on the riverbank, because of flooding. And one day we saw a bald eagle fly over the river. Working on the river was beautiful.
"Not only do I now know all possible canoe put-ins for that stretch," says Mullens with an easy laugh, "but I've documented the land use and different issues that confront it. You can see it: farmers planting at an angle, so pesticides run into the water, and they plow – mostly for corn – right up to the bank, without any vegetative buffer."
Mullens examined land use, angle of repose (bank height and slope), vegetation and soil type, river dynamics, and existing erosion controls.
North Walpole had seen the worst of the erosion in the upper river basin, she found. Of the 71 reaches of riverbank they examined, only 16 were moderately or severely eroded. These reaches were located in the northern half of the upper basin, and 11 of them were in agricultural sites.
In most cases, the erosion resulted from the fact that the bank was concave, steep, and high; consisted of sandy soil; and was situated where it was hit by high-speed flows. "I'd like to do this type of fieldwork again," says Mullens. "The methodology" – getting up close and personal with riverbanks – "hasn't been used much."
A Natural Continuum
Dam removal is gaining currency in the United States, and though it hasn't been long since Mullens moved to New England, making the trip from Oregon State University, where she earned her doctorate, she's become an authority on the trend in the area.
The United States has 76,000 dams that are more than 6 feet high, and about 5,500 of them are more than 50 feet high. As for smaller dams, there are about 2 million.
"Dams have dramatically altered our rivers' ecosystems," says Mullens, "transforming a naturally regulated and connected system into a partially controlled, fragmented one."
"We've made tremendous mistakes," says Mullens, who taught the subject as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Masaryk and Charles Universities in the Czech Republic in 2002. "But we're lucky enough to be able to research them, and we're moving toward a more holistic perspective of river management."
"The United States leads the world in dam removal," she points out. "Here river restoration is becoming more mainstream. For example, the Bureau of Reclamation on the whole is very pro-engineer and conservative, but individuals in the agency told me at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers that there's growing support for dam removal in the agency."
About 500 dams have been removed nationwide. (Wisconsin has removed the most.) Although the media have zeroed in on a few high-profile removals mandated by federal legal proceedings, most removals have been small.
In a paper she presented at the World Water Congress in Madrid in October, Mullens focused on state-level policy on dam removal in the six New England states, which collectively track more than 15,000 dams.
"In New England, we have a lot of little obsolete mill dams," she explains. "They may have some historic interest, but not much economic value."
Thirty-seven dams have been taken out in New England. Connecticut has removed the most, 16, and four have been removed in New Hampshire.
At first dams were removed because, with age, they presented safety problems, but in the last decade, says Mullens, "many of the New England removals have occurred because of river restoration projects initiated by citizen groups and/or government agencies."
In Connecticut, for example, the removal of three dams on the Naugatuck River has restored shad, blueback herring, alewife, and sea-run brown trout populations. Removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine in 1999 has allowed the migration of Atlantic salmon and alewife up the river, which had been blocked for 162 years. Now that two dams have been removed from the Ashuelot River, the river is being stocked with Atlantic salmon fry, in a nascent attempt to restore the species.
"I'm not knee-jerk about dam removal," says Mullens. "Obviously, control of water flow may be necessary in populated areas susceptible to flooding. And actually, although the liberal view is 'remove it,' we have to realize that a whole new ecosystem has been created by a dam. We need postremoval assessment to look at what's happened to the channel.
"But it's great to see that rivers that were fragmented are allowed to have a natural continuum. We're going to figure out how to do things holistically."
In the spring Mullens will enlist students in a survey of residents in the Ashuelot watershed to gauge their perceptions of the effects of dam removal on that river. "How does the public see dam removal?" she wonders. "And how can we incorporate the public in dam removal decisions?"
When it comes to protecting waterways, Mullens is always looking to see what's around the bend.
We can all drink a glass of water to that.
Deborah Klenotic is a writer and editor in the College Relations Office.