The Urban Waterscape

Courtney Schmidt is making a career of caring what flows into the Providence River and Narragansett Bay.

By Veronica M. Berounsky, Ph.D. ’90

Courtney E. Schmidt, M.S. ’09, Ph.D. ’14, coastal ecologist and environmental scientist, loves urban estuaries. She grew up near the industrialized Passaic and Hackensack Rivers in New Jersey, she went to college at the University of Tampa in Florida, and did research on the Providence River and Narragansett Bay as a doctoral degree candidate. So it’s no surprise that she became the staff scientist for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program (NBEP) in 2014.

But why did a self-proclaimed “Jersey Girl” move to and settle in Rhode Island? And why is this mother of two boys a Girl Scout troop leader?

The answers are related.

After graduating with a B.S. in Biology/Marine Science from University of Tampa, Schmidt returned home to New Jersey, unsure what she wanted to do in graduate school. Schmidt had been an avid Girl Scout while growing up, so when the Girl Scouts advertised for a person to develop and run environmental programs for scouts and their leaders, she applied. There she found her passion: connecting people to their urban environment and watershed. Schmidt’s work with the Girl Scouts also helped her hone skills that would be essential for graduate work—how to break down complex ideas to manageable concepts, teaching people of all ages and abilities about environmental science, and how to be organized and deliver a product.

Schmidt embarked on a Master of Science project with GSO professor Brian Heikes: measuring carbon monoxide in Rhode Island’s Pettaquamscutt Estuary. Heikes knew waters in some sections of the estuary are naturally without oxygen, or anoxic, and that can affect carbon cycling. Carbon monoxide in the air is a toxin that primarily comes from vehicle and industrial emissions—anthropogenic sources. Carbon monoxide in estuarine waters can also be a source to the air. Schmidt and Heikes found carbon monoxide in the estuary and in 2014 published the first measurements of it from anoxic estuarine waters.

Moving on to her dissertation research with GSO professor Scott Nixon, Schmidt continued to look at anthropogenic impacts, but this time with an eye toward nitrogen. There has been concern about increasing levels of anthropogenic nitrogen in the Providence River and Narragansett Bay and more incidences of low oxygen, which can be fatal to fish and shellfish. Several of the biggest wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) in the bay ecosystem started using new methods to reduce the nitrogen that flows out of the facilities.

With the help of GSO professor Rebecca Robinson, who became her co-advisor, Schmidt used stable (naturally occurring) isotopes to trace nitrogen from WWTP through its various forms in the water column to macroalgae (seaweeds) and phytoplankton (microscopic plants), which form the base of the food web for Narragansett Bay. She found reductions in anthropogenic nitrogen from WWTP made a significant improvement on the Providence River, but the Bay itself was impacted more by mixing and recycling of nitrogen.

When the Girl Scouts advertised for a person to develop and run environmental programs for scouts and their leaders, she applied. There she found her passion: connecting people to their urban environment and watershed.

Schmidt started as the staff scientist at NBEP soon after she finished her dissertation. The NBEP, as is true of all estuary programs around the country, is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency through the Clean Water Act, Section 320. Its purpose is “to identify, protect and restore estuaries of national significance.” There are only 28 in the country, so Rhode Island is fortunate to have one.

Schmidt loves her job because she gets to learn a bit about anything related to the bay and she has a whole slew of experts that she can call on to give her up-to-date information about the bay, its tributaries, and its watershed. As her current supervisor, executive director of the NBEP, Mike Gerel notes, many people with Ph.D.s want to be the expert on “their topic” but Schmidt enjoys being a generalist and as a result is knowledgeable about many aspects of the bay.

The good news: what Nixon had called, “The Grand Ecological Experiment” did work, because nitrogen flowing to the bay has been reduced and oxygen levels do not drop as low as they once did. But tough questions remain: how many quahogs are “enough?” If an area is “clean,” should we leave it closed as a nursery area for quahogs? If we take a dam out, will fish passage improve or will backed up sediments reduce the water flow? Will the marshes still act as a buffer when sea levels rise? Most importantly, how do the actions of people in the watershed affect waters? Schmidt’s job involves bringing together scientists and managers to find answers.

Schmidt is also the president of the New England Estuarine Research Society (NEERS), the latest in a line of GSO alums to serve as president of the society. She has put in her time with NEERS, since she was previously the treasurer and secretary. But it’s another opportunity to connect scientists with managers and educators to get the word out about environmental issues in the Northeast U.S.

She still loves New Jersey and still cheers on their sports teams, but Rhode Island is where she has chosen to live and raise her family.

As for paying it forward, when Courtney found out about a need for a local Girl Scout Troop, she volunteered as a Troop Leader. “I learned so much as a Girl Scout and running programs for the Girl Scouts, I didn’t hesitate to give back,” she said.

And, importantly for Schmidt, she gets to connect people with this ecosystem she has come to love.