NEWBURYPORT - The foyer of Castle Hill in Ipswich was filled with large poster displays depicting detailed graphs and diagrams about the Parker River and Ipswich River watershed areas and their futures.
The scientists, all members of various organizations such as Mass Audubon and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole as well as instructors from Clark University, were on hand to discuss the problems, trends and future of a region that is full of varied habitats and ecosystems.
Clark University, under the direction of principal researcher Colin Polsky, an assistant professor in the graduate school of geography, announced the start of a new study that will examine the effects of urban sprawl in 30 cities and towns in the Ipswich and Parker river watersheds - communities that locally include Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley, West Newbury and Georgetown.
"The novelty of our study will really be an understanding of the land and how it is being used," Polsky said. "The response of the environment is really what we are looking at."
Polsky and his team of students and scientists received a $1,442,930 grant to research the suburbanization of the cities and towns surrounding Newburyport and to find what effect it will have on the watershed in the future. The results of the study will be presented to the city government to help in planning, Polsky said.
Though teams of researchers have been studying the Ipswich River watershed for more than 10 years, Polsky will head the social science aspect, using computer-based mapping to determine what impact suburban and land development will have on the watershed in the coming years.
"We will start in the spring studying the changes in land and water usage based on land usage," Polsky said, noting the team will be looking for the effects of fertilizer as well as nitrogen levels released from septic tanks during the course of the study.
In addition to conducting field research, the team will go door-to-door to interview residents about how they manage their property. They will also mail surveys and analyze the zoning of each city, Polsky said.
"There will be many different parts of the study, but a big part of our project will be working with schools," Polsky said.
Polsky will work with the School Yard Program, which is sponsored by Mass Audubon, to get local schools and youth groups interested and involved in ecological conservation and study.
Locally, Newburyport elementary and middle schools will conduct research at the Mass Audubon Refuge and the Joppa Flats as part of school projects.
"It's exciting on a variety of levels. It helps us to collect data, make informed decisions and improve wetlands," Liz Duff, education coordinator for Mass Audubon, said. "They learn a valuable lesson and are acting as stewards. It's empowering to them and helpful to us all."
Over the next four years, Polsky hopes to provide answers to how well we communities are planning and zoning neighborhoods while protecting natural ecosystems.
"I'm not going at this like we have the right answer about the suburban landscape," Polsky said. "It's complicated."