A dip into the deep blue
TCNJ professors and students are our water warriors as a global crisis deepens.
I’ve always been obsessed with water,” says Elizabeth Mackie, professor of art and art history. That obsession, influenced by her time spent near various water bodies, has long inspired her work. And no wonder. Water is ubiquitous, covering 71% of the earth’s surface, rendering visuals of the planet in countless shades of blue. These days, though, there is an urgency to her art and her desire to bring awareness to this most elemental ingredient in our daily lives.
Whether in its absence in some places or its overabundance in others, water manages to wreak havoc around the world. A warming planet has been blamed for an increase in the intensity of rainstorms and hurricanes, and the resulting flooding, while in other pockets of the globe water is in tragically short supply. Mackie is not alone in her thinking about water. The issue has seeped into the studies of professors and their students across the TCNJ campus.
Precious resource depicters
For the past 15 years, Mackie’s time spent by the water’s edge and the impact of global warming on the resource have together influenced her artwork. An interdisciplinary artist, Mackie often works with handmade paper, creating different textures and dying the paper many shades of blue to represent moving water. Her concern about glacier loss in the eastern Alps and her studies along the shores of England and Cuba resulted in art projects that have been exhibited nationally and internationally over the course of the last decade.
Mackie lives outside Frenchtown, New Jersey, near the Delaware River, an often tranquil, sometimes violent body of water that has served as muse for some of her most recent projects. During her time in isolation due to the pandemic, she took “hours and hours” of video of the river. This past summer, she and students Nicole Molnar ’23 and Michaela Moran ’24 pored over the video for creative inspiration.
The students learned Mackie’s paper-making techniques (a challenging undertaking that involves lots and lots of water) and spent the summer with their fingernails dyed blue. “The beautiful colors and patterns we saw in the water videos impacted our choices in creating the paper,” says Moran.
One of Mackie’s works, The Delaware River, is an immersive experience with 17 minutes of video projected onto a large, white, sculpted board. “You can move all the way around it,” says Mackie, “so you become part of the piece.”
Molnar and Moran formed the board based on composition and balance that would create interest when images were projected onto it. But the energy of the water was also evident. “The form does have a resemblance to the water and its waves,” says Moran.
The Delaware River was recently accepted into the prestigious International Biennial for Paper Fibre Art in Taiwan, a five-month-long exhibition that opens in November. Among the 44 artists represented in the biennial, only six are American. “We can help others to think about the impact humans have on the Delaware River by offering a visual reminder that we are directly intertwined with nature,” says Moran. “I hope when people look at the pieces, they see the beauty that inspired our choices and then have a sense of urgency to protect that beauty.”
H2O’s cautious historian
When it comes to water, history professor Matthew Bender takes a global view. As a scholar and president of the International Water History Association, his primary interest is in understanding humankind’s relationship with water — what Bender calls “the most vital resource for human development.”
Bender has focused much of his research in Africa, studying the management of water in remote communities, such as on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and the connection between water and the 800,000 people living on the slopes of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain. It’s the subject of his 2019 book, Water Brings No Harm: Management Knowledge and the Struggle for the Waters of Kilimanjaro, for which he conducted about 100 interviews with local people.
He says the problems related to water scarcity in one part of the globe are often replicated in other corners. “Part of the job of a good African historian,” he says, “is to convince people that the problems in Africa are not exclusive to Africa.”
As he scans the global waterscape, from the American Southwest to sub-Saharan Africa, Bender cites gloomy forecasts that, as early as 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will lack access to clean water at least one month a year. “My interest is in understanding the development of that problem over time,” he says. “How is it that the one thing that everybody needs to live could be in such chronic short supply?”
The cause of the current and pending shortage, Bender says, is multipronged: climate change, surely, but also urbanization and rising rates of consumption. In the United States, fast-growing cities in arid locations, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, illustrate the problem. Much of their water is piped in from great distances, and climate change only exacerbates the problem, which tends to make wet places wetter and dry places drier. He notes, for example, that a sustained lack of snowfall in the higher elevations of the American West and Southwest has lowered reservoirs to dangerous levels. “There are environmental limitations that are hard to do anything about,” Bender says.
One solution: “The built landscape of the city could be rethought in a way that recognizes the acute scarcity of the resource,” says Bender. He points out that golf courses and swimming pools, ubiquitous features of the region, are “huge consumers” of water. Reducing their numbers would help, as would replacing lawns with hardscaping. “People tried to have their cake and eat it too with regard to development in these places,” he says. “And it just may not work anymore.”
From Bender’s view, the worldwide water crisis has typically been considered more of a problem in underdeveloped countries. No longer. “It’s becoming a problem that will be everybody’s problem,” Bender says.
The height watchman
Michael Horst jokes that his eventual career choice came down to what he describes as his youthful laziness. “I thought I’d love to have a job where I could go fishing on my lunch break,” he says.
Turns out his work does bring him in regular contact with rivers, with or without his fishing gear. A professor of civil engineering, Horst is focused on trying to gauge the impact of rainfall runoff, particularly in powerful storms that cause severe flooding. He calls the discipline “extreme rain event modeling.” And with climate change causing more intense rain events — in New Jersey, Hurricane Ida in 2021 was a deadly example — his work is as timely as it is topical. “More rainfall means more water in the river, and more water in the river means more flooding,” he says.
Traditional flood zone maps, used to dictate which property owners are required to purchase flood insurance, Horst says, no longer apply. “We’re seeing the intensity of the rainfall has really been starting to increase,” he says. “Before, if we saw three inches of rain in one hour, that’s a lot of rain, and we’d expect that to happen once every 100 years. Now we might see that kind of intensity once every 20 years.”
Horst has been researching severe rain events in New Jersey, and he’s now expanding that research across the Northeast. Using data collected from Hurricane Ida, he’s aiming to develop a forecasting model that could help municipalities respond to heavy rainfall in real time. “In essence,” Horst says, “we’re making predictions on what the stream is going to look like in two hours or two days.”
His research, rooted in determining a river’s flow rate — measured in cubic feet per second — can also help engineers and land-use planners decide how high to build new bridges and other hydraulic structures. “It’s the kind of thing that most people don’t think about,” Horst says. “But somebody has to.”
A quality controller
“My overarching focus,” says Alexis Mraz, professor of public health, “is quantifying risk in water.” She started as a master’s student in environmental health science. Back then, she focused on frogs, given their standing as harbingers of the health of the very water in which they reside. Moving forward, Mraz concentrated on the connection between the environment — water specifically — and human health.
She’s interested in the broad strokes — for example, if the waters where we recreate such as oceans, lakes, and city splashpads, are healthy. But her research, of course, drills down to a more detailed level. She looks at water and sanitation health and how to assess — and reduce — the risk of waterborne contaminants. She’s immersed in the epidemiology of two research projects — one funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the other by the National Science Foundation — scrutinizing the presence of Legionella, a bacteria, in water.
One project, a collaboration with the New York State Department of Health, is studying the water systems of two dozen hospitals and nursing homes. Mraz and her fellow researchers are focused on reducing outbreaks of Legionellosis, a disease caused by the bacteria. She hopes the research will be expanded to include other opportunistic pathogens that can cause outbreaks in health care settings.
In her lab at TCNJ, Mraz spikes a bioreactor with Legionella to measure its growth over time. She will use the resulting data to devise a predictive model that takes into account building design and aspects of a site’s plumbing system, such as piping material, water treatment, boiler types, and temperature. Such a model will enable Mraz’s research team to make specific recommendations to individual health care facilities to reduce the risk of a Legionellosis outbreak. “Legionella can be a frustrating problem for hospital managers who have struggled to treat it and have had reoccurring issues,” says Mraz. “We’re hoping this project will provide solutions for them to manage current issues and prevent future ones.”
Pictures Peter Murphy
Posted on October 12, 2023