Kimberly Van Meter joined the department this summer as an assistant professor of geography specializing in water systems. She is a co-hire with the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI).
Van Meter takes an interdisciplinary approach to her work, drawing on her training in chemistry and environmental engineering.
“The diversity of my background has allowed me to develop as a geographer, as I think about the different interacting systems across the landscape that create the complex environmental challenges that we face today,” she said.
Van Meter said her interest in studying climate, land use, and management practices that impact water quality and ecosystem dynamics came from her experiences growing up in Iowa, where about 86 percent of the land is used for farming, according to the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
“Such intensive agriculture brought many negative impacts on water quality, both within the state itself and in downstream waters like the Gulf of Mexico, where we have an aquatic dead zone each year approximately the size of New Jersey,” Van Meter said. “I grew up drinking well water in Iowa, wading the streams, and learning to canoe in the highly polluted Des Moines River. Water quality is a personal issue to me, and in my work I am deeply interested in better understanding of how overlapping activities in the agriculture and energy sectors, in the context of a changing climate, are shaping our current water landscape.”
In her research on how agricultural practices have impacted water quality, Van Meter reveals how understanding the history of a landscape can provide important context for the current challenges.
“For example, in the Mississippi River Basin, where nitrate runoff from agriculture is creating problems like impairing drinking water quality and large aquatic dead zones, scientists predict we need to reduce nitrate by about 60 percent to reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone to a manageable area,” Van Meter said. “But looking at the history, we can see that means reducing runoff to approximately 1930 levels—before farmers were even using nitrate fertilizers.”
Despite the challenges, Van Meter said she is excited about ongoing wetland preservation work as one way to address those water quality problems.
“Wetlands provide such a large range of environmental benefits, from provision of aquatic habitats for birds and other animals, to the filtering of contaminants from polluted water, it is difficult to overstate their importance in landscape restoration efforts,” Van Meter said.
“While efforts to restore wetlands could certainly use more funding, one of the most important results from my recent work on wetlands and water quality is to show that targeted restoration efforts can give us the best bang for the buck. If we work to restore the wetland landscape strategically in some intensively farmed areas, we can achieve large improvements in water quality as well as a host of other environmental benefits.”
Building upon her research, this fall, Van Meter will teach a special topics course, GEOG 497 Human Impacts on Aquatic Ecosystems.
“In the class, we will focus on key aquatic ecosystems, from small wetlands and ponds to large coastal systems such as the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico,” she said. “An important goal will be to better understand how those ecosystems function in the landscape and how human activity is changing this functionality.”
In the spring, Van Meter will teach a geomorphology course emphasizing the development of river and coastal systems, and how climate change is affecting those systems.
For future research projects, Van Meter said she is interested in exploring the effects of dams and reservoirs on water quality.
“We live in an era where many new dams are being built, particularly in Asia and South America,” she said. “At the same time, there is increasing interest in removing small, older dams that have become unsafe or that no longer serve a current purpose. It is still not well understood, however, how dam building and dam removal change downstream water quality.”
Van Meter said she is planning a new study to quantify the effects of dams across the Chesapeake Bay Watershed on riverine nitrate loads. Later she will expand the study to include old mill dams—and mill dam removal—in the region.
“We have many tools at our disposal to improve environmental outcomes,” Van Meter said. “I am increasingly heartened to see an emphasis on solutions to water quality and other environmental problems, and a growing chorus of voices demanding that we do what is needed to make these solutions a reality.”