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Flagler College’s Professors and Students Conduct Monthly Samplings of San Sebastian’s Water Quality

Sep 9, 2021

For undergraduate students working with Dr. Matthew Brown and Dr. Melissa Southwell, associate professors of Natural Sciences at Flagler College, their monthly water quality samplings of the San Sebastian River in St. Augustine are not only giving them valuable learning experiences in the field, but also opening up new insights into the health of this important local waterway.

In order to conduct effective samplings from the San Sebastian River, they sample the same five sites every month. Sites stretch from where the San Sebastian River reaches the Intracoastal waterway to north of the State Road 16 Bridge.

After the group collects their water samples from each site, they head back to the Flagler College science labs, where they conduct several analyses. The analyses include turbidity, total suspended solids, chlorophyll-a (phytoplankton biomass), multiple nutrients (nitrate/nitrite, ammonium, and phosphate), and fecal coliform bacteria.

"What I find most exciting about the research is that it's all preliminary data, so it's interesting to investigate uncharted territory. Overall, our research might provide some new knowledge of wildlife in our area, whether it be humans, birds, manatees, etc.," said Tennasyn Porter, an undergraduate student at Flagler College. "I feel very lucky to have been a part of this research for the past couple of years, and I can't wait to see where it leads."

Research participants have made several significant findings, including that a high amount of fecal bacteria has surfaced throughout the river, especially as you move upstream. Additionally, during certain months, there tends to be an increase in nutrient concentrations around the Oyster Creek area.

At this time, it's unclear whether the fecal bacteria are related to human origin or if they are from animals such as feral pigs, birds, etc. Samples will be sent out for genetic analysis to identify the source of the high fecal bacteria counts.

Dr. Brown has shared the project and findings with the Matanzas River Keeper and the Guana Tolomato Matanzas Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR) staff. In addition, he has presented the work at several meetings at the Oyster Water Quality Task Force and the Spring 2020 State of the Reserve meeting.

"This research has involved 18 student volunteers, 9 of which went on to do a for-credit semester or year-long research assistantships. Thus, the project has served as a wonderful undergraduate research experience platform," said Dr. Brown.

Additionally, there are significant benefits for students working on the San Sebastian Water Quality project at Flagler College. It opens up opportunities for a valuable learning experience for every student involved.

Being part of the research has allowed students to explore new and exciting data that's found monthly and enables them to further explore the St. Augustine community.

"We get hands-on field training, we practice water quality analysis in our state-of-the-art laboratory, and we gain excellent critical thinking skills when learning to interpret the data. Having this edge is what will set us apart and provide us the confidence we will need to succeed when pursuing careers in Coastal Environmental Science," said Monica Maldonado, an undergraduate student at Flagler College.

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