Celebrating 50 years of the National Center for Water Quality Research

“In over 70 interviews with a diversity of researchers, former students, agriculturalists and others familiar with the National Center for Water Quality Research, the most commonly voiced sentiment I heard was admiration – sometimes tinged with amazement – for the Water Laboratory’s staff and the invaluable data it has amassed over the past 50 years.”

That is the assessment of Dr. Ken Baker, professor emeritus of biology, who has chronicled the work of the NCWQR in a soon-to-be-published book about its remarkable history. Ken compiled the story of its staff and activities in anticipation of Heidelberg’s celebration of the NCWQR’s golden anniversary this fall.

The driving force behind the book is Peg (Swinehart) Baker, ’60, wife of the lab’s founder and long-time director, Dr. David Baker, ’58. Peg has long enjoyed the nature columns Ken writes for several area newspapers and thought he would be the ideal person to take on the project. His response when asked? “Sure. It’s a great story.”

As he prepared for the task, however, Ken realized he needed to go back to school. “I needed to do two things: I needed to talk to a lot of people and I needed to read up on water science and familiarize myself with the Lab’s publications. I’m a biologist, not a water chemist, so this is not my native milieu,” he said.

Ken’s central focus in researching and writing the history has been an effort to address the question, “How is it that an internationally respected, state-of-the-art environmental research facility specializing in water quality studies came to exist and thrive at a small, liberal arts college in northwest Ohio?” It hasn’t always been easy.

The lab’s origin dates back to Dr. David Baker who, as the newest member of Heidelberg’s biology faculty in 1966, had the idea to offer his introductory biology students a real-world research experience by incorporating a three-week water quality study of the Sandusky River in the course’s laboratory component. 

Then, in 1968, Dave received the first of many significant grants for a study of contaminants in the Sandusky River. Among other things, the grant allowed for the purchase of equipment and the hiring of what was to be the lab’s first full-time employee, Jack Kramer, ’69. Contrary to initial expectations, Dave Baker’s team discovered that storm events, rather than diluting concentrations of pollutants in the river, commonly resulted in runoff from agricultural fields that produced spikes in their concentrations.

“That study during the summer of 1969 really drove a lot of the Lab’s research going forward and was one of the major first findings to draw attention to its work,” said Ken. It laid the foundation for the creation of the incredible amount of water quality data that has become one of the NCWQR’s most valuable contributions to science. “You will not find a dataset of similar quantity and quality anywhere else in the world.” 

Ken’s history continues through the decades, writing, for example, of the Lab’s two-year study of Lake Erie aboard the 122-foot Roger R. Simons (during which time the EPA vessel sailed under Heidelberg’s flag), its discovery of the importance of dissolved phosphorus compounds as a trigger for hazardous algal blooms in Lake Erie, its expanding investigations of nutrients, pesticides and metals in surface and groundwater, Dr. Ken Krieger’s studies on the remarkable recovery of Lake Erie’s mayfly populations, and the NCWQR’s collaborations with other research groups in developing and testing mathematical models exploring the interface between agricultural practices and water quality in streams, rivers and lakes. 

In his forward to the book, Dave Baker writes, “The development of what is now called the National Center for Water Quality Research (NCWQR) at Heidelberg University is largely a consequence of being in the right place, at the right time and with the right people.” 

The right people, indeed. The lab’s history is as much the story of its people as it is of the work they’ve accomplished. Astonishingly, technicians Jack Kramer, Ellen Ewing and Barbara Merryfield have each contributed well over 40 years of their careers to making the lab possible. Business Manager Nancy Miller and researchers Ken Krieger and Pete Richards have each racked up 30+ years, while Pete and Ken have each taken their turn as director following Dave’s (first) retirement in 1999.

But there are many others, not the least of which would be the legions of undergraduate research assistants who, throughout the Lab’s history, have worked during the academic year and/or the summer months—collecting samples from the field, running chemical analyses, sorting macroinvertebrates and washing, washing, washing untold numbers of bottles.

In 2016, Dr. Laura Johnson became the lab’s sixth director (seventh if you count Dave Baker’s two-year return as interim director in 2005). Of the crew from the 1980s, only Ellen, Barb and Nancy still show up for work each day. But along with these stalwarts, the lab’s present staff also includes researchers Rem Confesor, Tian Guo, Nate Manning and Aaron Roerdink (part time), as well as research assistants Jake Boehler and Nicole Kuhn. 

As noted in a final chapter of the history, Laura is pleased with her team’s diverse capabilities and optimistic about the NCWQR’s future. “Still, I’d prefer,” says Ken, “if someone else takes on the job of writing the lab’s history for its second 50 years.” 

By Angela Giles
Published in Summer 19

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