Peers Honor Merritts, Walter for Groundbreaking Research

  • Associate Professor of Geosciences Robert Walter ’75 (left) and Professor of Geosciences Dorothy Merritts (right), display their Kirk Bryan Award at the annual Geological Society of America meeting in Minneapolis in October. Joining the professors is Ellen Wohl, professor of geology at Colorado State University, who nominated them for the award. (Photo by Kyle House)
  • Dorothy Merritts discusses the landscape at Big Spring Run as Robert Walter ’75 works in the stream on a sweltering afternoon in June. The professors will soon continue their research at the site following a large-scale excavation project to restore the landcape's original function.  

Dorothy Merritts and Robert Walter ’75, faculty members in Franklin & Marshall’s Department of Earth & Environment, have received the 2011 Kirk Bryan Award for Research Excellence from the Geological Society of America. The professors won the award for their groundbreaking research paper titled “Natural Streams and the Legacy of Water-Powered Mills,” which appeared in Science in 2008.

The Kirk Bryan Award is presented annually for a publication of distinction that advances the science of geomorphology or Quaternary geology. F&M has a longstanding connection to the award; Merritts and Walter join former professor Richard Waitt (1987 recipient) and Milan Pavich ’69 (1991 recipient) as winners with ties to the College. In addition, former F&M geology professor John Moss was a student of Kirk Bryan’s at Harvard University.

“It’s such an honor to be recognized by your peers,” Walter says. “We’re pleased and humbled to be part of F&M’s connection to the award. This really helps to establish our work as important and opens new avenues of research.”

Merritts and Walter have been studying stream water in Lancaster County as part of a research project since 2003. They determined that tens of thousands of mill dams once existed in Pennsylvania, Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states, forming slackwater ponds that trapped sediment over a period of centuries. Sediment released by the aging dams has lowered the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, which was declared an impaired water body in 2000 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Ellen Wohl, professor of geology at Colorado State University, nominated Walter and Merritts for the Kirk Bryan Award. In the award citation, Wohl credits the professors for challenging assumptions about river form and stream restoration.

“By demonstrating that the floodplains are actually historical fill terraces and that the streams are not natural archetypes for gravel-bed, meandering streams, Walter and Merritts have provided an opportunity for members of the stream-science community to reevaluate long-held assumptions about stream processes and form, the historical influence of humans on streams, and appropriate models for stream restoration,” Wohl says.

Merritts and Walter are conducting most of their current research at Big Spring Run, a meandering stream that flows through farmland near Willow Street, Lancaster County. The professors recently worked with state and federal agencies on a high-profile project to restore the landscape’s original function—and, they hope, improve water quality in the Chesapeake.

The project has enabled Merritts and Walter to introduce F&M students to new areas of research.

"It's exciting to be able to take students to the field any day of the week," Merritts says.  "I used to buy plane tickets and take two or three advanced students far afield for a few weeks of summer research. Now students from introductory to advanced classes can participate in the local project throughout the year. Students get an intense immersion into hands-on learning. They become high-capacity researchers."

Merritts and Walter are currently on sabbatical at Stanford University as Allan Cox Visiting Professors for the 2011-12 academic year. They look forward to continuing their research at the newly restored Big Spring Run when they return to Lancaster; the professors will monitor geomorphic changes over time to determine if the project has resulted in a reduction of suspended sediment in the water. “We know of no other stream being studied in such detail, Walter says.

“This will last our lifetime. We’ll never be done with it,” Merritts says. “It’s transformed our work.”

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