Tara Kneeshaw in the lab.

Making Waves: Tara Kneeshaw analyzes ways the microscopic world can indicate, or help, water quality

In her lab, Tara Kneeshaw can measure the cumulative effect on water from routine daily actions: Eating an especially salty dinner, dumping out the flavored coffee that went cold in the cup, emptying the mop bucket.

Kneeshaw, a geochemist and assistant professor of geology, has dedicated her career to improving water quality by studying what we can't see.

She said it is easy to see how some large-scale scenarios affect water quality, like road salt runoff. But she is quick to point out an increase in salinity over time in the Great Lakes as well as other waterways can also be attributed to salt that goes through wastewater treatment plants.

What we put down the drain or in the ground counts, Kneeshaw said. And it's also a good reminder that the water system is all connected.

Tara Kneeshaw in the lab.
"Water monitoring is important," Tara Kneeshaw said. "You can't just take one sample on one day. Long-term monitoring and comparison of data are really vital to knowing what's normal or not normal."

That connectivity is always with Kneeshaw as she conducts her studies, such as for the Grand River research project for the Making Waves initiative.

Kneeshaw was part of a group collecting dozens of samples to compare to those taken in 1990 during a Grand River expedition. The analysis continues, with the scientists working through how the current high water phase affects results, Kneeshaw said.

"In general, we can definitely say the overall water quality is much better than it was in 1990," Kneeshaw said.

For someone who describes herself as a "water person" -- she has received national recognition as a competitive canoeist -- as well as a water researcher, Kneeshaw said Michigan is an ideal location. Yet she noted that her career took a more circuitous route, spending time in places without much water before returning to Michigan.

She started out in what she described as more traditional geology. "I spent a summer gluing fossil turtle shells together," she said.

Her focus started turning to geochemistry when she worked on a project involving saltwater intrusion in the Los Angeles basin. She said she progressively became more immersed in a field where she could use applied science as a tool to address modern environmental issues.

Bottles in a container in the lab.
Kneeshaw works in the lab.
Kneeshaw said her work allows her to have the "best of both worlds." She loves the opportunity to work in the field as well as the time she spends on analysis in the lab.
Containers with water samples

While much of her work involves analyzing microscopic parts of water that can indicate problems, her work also includes studying the benefits of bacteria in mitigating contamination, such as leaking underground storage tanks.

"What’s so interesting is that bacteria is everywhere and there is a tendency to assume they're bad, when most of them are doing really good things," Kneeshaw said. "You can use the microbial community to work to help us. It's amazing what you can get bacteria to eat and break down. That saves money, time and energy."

Sharing that type of knowledge is important to Kneeshaw. She said it is important to show how science can help ensure healthy water; that's also why those involved with the Making Waves Grand River project are committed to sharing data with the public as an educational tool.

"I want to educate people to understand that what we do as humans ultimately impacts our water," Kneeshaw said. "When we do enforce and regulate and publicly educate people on how to correct water quality, we might not see it overnight, but the change does happen."


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