Vassar Today

Testing the Waters

By Juliana Kiyan '09

The Casperkill Creek flows south from Peach Hill and underneath the Kmart Plaza, runs through Sunset Lake and the Vassar Farm, winds past the Poughkeepsie Galleria, and ultimately feeds into the Hudson River.

The creek’s watershed covers 12 square miles in Poughkeepsie and serves as one of the few common resources for residents in the sprawling town. But as urban development has exploded within the watershed over the past decades, the health of the creek has degraded.

A team of Vassar faculty and students seeks to reverse the creek’s decline. Since Spring 2006 the Casperkill Assessment Project (CAP) — a partnership between the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) at Vassar and local organizations and individuals — has been conducting research on the creek and its watershed. CAP’s primary goal is to use its research toward making the Casperkill the healthiest possible community resource.

“Whatever we’re doing to the Casperkill ultimately affects our source of drinking water,” says Associate Professor of Earth Science and ERI Director Kirsten Menking. “We’re trying to understand regional patterns of development and the subsequent effects on the stream.” Every month for the past two years, CAP members have been taking water samples at 21 sites spanning the length of the Casperkill to assess the state of the creek. Some of the biggest threats to the stream are litter and road salt that seep into the stream. Ignorance of the creek’s decline stands as another threat, according to former ERI fellow Chris Freimuth ’06. CAP is trying to reach out to those who are simply unaware of the negative consequences that their actions have on the creek’s ecology. “If we can’t even take care of a 10-mile creek in our backyard, then I don’t think we’re prepared to even start thinking about larger issues…such as climate change or species extinction,” says Freimuth.

The project reflects a broad collaboration between faculty and students from the biology, chemistry, urban studies, and earth science and geology departments. Beyond the practical aim of improving the health of the stream, CAP also serves as a unique educational resource for students and faculty.

After years of observing the condition of Sunset Lake deteriorate, Menking decided to take action. She spoke with her colleagues — many of whom had independently used the Casperkill for science labs over the years — about forming a unified effort to remedy the creek, and CAP was born as a way to promote the preservation and restoration of the watershed. The Mellon Foundation granted their proposal for CAP, and the multidisciplinary project was launched in Summer 2006.

Students have examined the creek as a case study not only for scientific research, but also for local policymaking and community outreach. Members of CAP have presented their findings to town officials, who have been receptive to changing land use and development policies. Associate Professor of Chemistry Stuart Belli, who co-taught a class on the Casperkill and has worked with Undergraduate Research Summer Institute students researching the creek, emphasizes the value of having students consider the impact of their research beyond the classroom. “Students are going that extra step, where you have the science and the results, and now here are the people who would use it,” he says. “How do we tell them about the results, and what will their response be?”

CAP has held two public forums on campus, inviting watershed residents to discuss their concerns, and last summer they distributed a survey to the community to gauge interest in forming a watershed protection group. Ultimately, CAP would like to integrate community members into the project to the point where it becomes a resident initiative supported by the college.

Poughkeepsie native Frank Dickerson Jr. lived along the Casperkill in the 1930s. In his memoirs he described the creek in a pristine state: “I love this creek and like to swim in it on a hot day….We pump water from that spring up to a reservoir, an underground concrete cistern that holds a week’s supply.” Dickerson was able to drink from the Casperkill less than a hundred years ago, and CAP strives to once again make the creek a clean and healthy resource.