Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Translating jargon before the wells run dry

Larissa Walker says not having a science background made it easier to help others understand a technical topic.

For the past 10 years, the Bridgeton-Nockamixon-Tinicum Groundwater Committee has been gathering evidence that water wells in the three rural townships in Upper Bucks County are running dry.

Little has come of the committee’s research, however, because it is described in a report whose complex terminology cannot be understood by local officials or the general public.

So last summer, Larissa Walker sifted through pages of data, jargon, charts and graphs and compiled an easy-to-read report as a paid intern for Tinicum Township.

Walker is studying toward a master’s degree in environmental policy design, a program that is part of the university’s Environmental Initiative. She took the internship in Tinicum at the suggestion of Breena Holland, assistant professor of political science, who is her mentor.

Walker, who double-majored in political science and philosophy while earning a bachelor’s degree from Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., hesitated to take the job because her background focused more on environmental policy than on science.

Learning on the job

Fortunately, her lack of scientific knowledge was an advantage for the work she undertook with Bob Stanfield, a retired engineer and co-chairman of the groundwater committee, and with other committee members.

“Bob is trying to determine what to do about [the groundwater problem] and how to get other townships to be as proactive as Tinicum has been,” Walker said. “He didn’t know how to communicate [the research] effectively so that people without his scientific-engineering background would understand it.

“So it was actually a good thing that I didn’t have a science degree.”

Each morning last summer, Stanfield explained data from the groundwater studies to Walker, who then translated it into layman’s terms. Her goal was to convey to people why they should be concerned about the drop in water levels and to explain the effects that new development could have on groundwater accessibility for nearby homes or schools.

“In more cases than not, development will run the wells dry,” said Walker. “They will have to be re-drilled or re-located, both of which are expensive and timely and very burdensome on residents, so it’s really important that people have access to this document.”

Summarizing the fate of a finite resource

Stanfield is pleased with Walker’s work.

“She has really done a magnificent job of summarizing what the Bridgeton-Nockamixon-Tinicum Groundwater Committee has been doing for the last decade,” he said.

Walker plans to join the groundwater committee in publicizing her report. The committee will present the completed and approved monograph to other townships, in hopes that they become aware of the issue and adopt necessary policy changes.

“If they accept that it’s a finite resource, my hope is that they would start monitoring and collecting their own groundwater data, and establish a comprehensive database and effective groundwater management policies and ordinances,” she said.

Walker has not decided whether she will work on other groundwater projects in the future. She said she has been inspired by Holland to pursue a doctorate in political science after she completes her master’s degree.

Whatever future plans she makes, she wants to see the Bridgeton-Nockamixon-Tinicum project through and make sure the committee’s work, and her own, has a significant impact in the region.


Story by Deanna McLafferty

Posted on Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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