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New View of Water Quality

Students conducting water research

New Views of Water Quality

Stephen Mezyk is contaminating drinking water.

But the CSULB associate professor of chemistry, who has been adding contaminants to pure water for the past several years, is actually one of several faculty members conducting cutting-edge research to ensure our waters remain safe.

While Mezyk is methodically adding contaminants to water to find new and better ways of removing them, biology Associate Professor Dessie Underwood is collecting snails, bugs and other invertebrates from Southern California streams to determine the water quality, and biology Professor Kevin Kelley is studying fish living off the coast to look at how healthy the Pacific Ocean is.

Their work has brought CSULB recognition throughout the West Coast. The university is the only academic institution in Southern California with a program in freshwater ecology and bioassessment and Kelley’s environmental endocrinology lab is one of the few using state-of-the-art technologies to analyze what is happening to endocrine systems in marine life.

Mezyk, who has one graduate and 11 undergraduate students working for him, began his water clean-up work studying MTBE, a chemical used in gasoline to reduce carbon monoxide emissions.Now he and his students are focused on removing cancer-causing, mutagenic nitrosamines—chemical compounds that have been turning up in water in small amounts.The levels are extremely low—below current federal standards—but agencies like the Orange County Water District and the Las Vegas Southern Nevada Water Authority are collaborating with Mezyk to find better ways of removing them.

Just a few floors up from Mezyk, Underwood and her five undergraduate and five graduate students prepare to visit streams throughout San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties as part of a project funded by the State Water Board.They look for specific invertebrates and when they don’t find them, as they did in a stream near Norco, it implies that something is wrong with the water.

“We have an expectation of what kind of bugs should live there,” Underwood said.“If you go out and take a water sample, you may miss certain things because you didn’t sample water at the right time, but the invertebrates in the water are subjected to whatever is in the water all the time, so they are excellent bioindicators.”

On the coast, Kelley, along with two laboratory staff members, five undergraduate and 10 graduate students, has found that the water going into the ocean is having a tremendous impact on marine life. In particular, they found that male hornyhead turbots have unusually high levels of estrogen.

One theory is that because wastewater treatment facilities off of Los Angeles and Orange counties do not remove estrogen from the water, the chemicals settle on the ocean floor and are passed on to the fish.A second possibility is that a chemical is being released into the ocean, stimulating the male hornyhead turbot to create estrogen.

Kelley’s research, along with Mezyk’s and Underwood’s work, is attracting the attention of government agencies and private consulting companies, which are turning to CSULB for help and are aggressively seeking the university’s graduates.

“We have very good faculty and a marine research emphasis that is one of the strongest in the country,” Kelley said. “We are trailblazing in this area of research as an educational institution and also regionally in understanding the impact of humans on water quality and marine life.”

1. Coventry Dougherty measures riparian vegetation cover using a densitometer. 2. Water research in Stephen Mezyk’s lab. 3.Jesus Reyes samples fish blood.