Staff Consultant Ashlee Balcerzak’s love of all things water is apparent within minutes of meeting her — from her blue diamond engagement ring to the décor in her CEC Columbus office.
She grew up in Maumee, Ohio, and around Lake Erie, where her passion for water issues began. Ashlee took that passion with her when she enrolled at The Ohio State University, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Environmental Science and Ecological Engineering.
Ashlee Balcerzak goes out in the field.
There, she completed her research project — “Evaluating the Effects of Riparian Habitat Type on Nutrient Concentrations in Agricultural Headwater Streams.” It was published in the September 2022 edition of the Journal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA).
Working with her master’s research adviser, Margaret M. Kalcic, currently of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ashlee wanted to find out the effectiveness of grass filter strips and other riparian buffer types used in agricultural watersheds to reduce nonpoint source pollution. At the start of her project, there is only limited information available on their long-term watershed scale effects.
Ashlee analyzed and digitized 13 years of data and samples collected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Ohio State houses a USDA office, allowing Ashlee access to the information and Peter C. Smiley Jr., of the Soil Drainage Research Unit, USDA Agricultural Research Service. She also gathered her own data — combining this mountain of information in Excel.
She then built a statistical model to analyze the data by season, year, and vegetation type. She was looking at how runoff from agriculture was affecting the watershed and determining the effectiveness of grass filter strips, a commonly used best management practice.
Ashlee Balcerzak donned a wetsuit for this water sampling.
“Nothing like this had been done before. There are eight streams in the watershed. Over the course of the 13 years, we looked at the same watershed, the same streams, the same farmers, and the same vegetation. Consistency is key,” Ashlee said.
Her results indicated that planting grass filter strips alone may not decrease nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations and highlighted the influence of riparian woody vegetation on the temporal dynamics of dissolved organic carbon concentrations.
While the grass strips did help for surface runoff, it did little to capture subsurface drainage. Adding another question to the mix — “What can be used for subsurface drainage?” Ashlee said she discovered some species of trees that bordered certain streams provided some level of filtering of the runoff.
Taking that concept to the next level of resolution is a job for the next graduate student working with the USDA, she adds with a smile.
Ashlee is currently doing civil/site work in Columbus, honing her understanding of civil engineering, which in turn will help her in the Eco practice in the future.
Bill Acton, Columbus Office Lead, “With her ecological restoration focus in our Civil Engineering Group, Ashlee is building her knowledge base, further diversifying our talent here in Columbus.”
“I aspire to grow and learn more in the sciences and engineering to make a difference,” Ashlee says.
With her love of all things water and her interests in water quality, nutrient management, ecology, agriculture, and engineering, her contributions to the discipline are inevitable.