Watershed research at Kennedy Field Station

Posted on November 02, 2015

Queen's facility the nucleus of model watershed

Geof Hall

A CLASSROOM IN THE FIELD: Geof Hall teaches a watershed course at the Kennedy Field Station. It’s just one of the courses that make use of the 59-hectare facility about an hour northwest of Kingston. 

The Salmon River flows from its source near the town of Arden in Ontario’s Frontenac County. It meanders south-westerly through several small lakes bisecting a handful of villages on its way through Hastings County until it meets the Bay of Quinte near Shannonville, just between Kingston and Bellville.

Every watershed is unique and this one has at least two qualities that make it a valuable data mine for researchers and students.

Firstly, the headwaters lie in a relatively pristine area but as the Salmon makes its way toward Lake Ontario, the soil becomes more fertile and easier to work. Agriculture intensifies and the consequent runoff impacts the surface- and groundwater quality in the watershed.

Secondly, the Salmon flows initially over the tough igneous rock that gives the Canadian Shield its rugged reputation. But as it nears its mouth, volcanic bedrock gives way to the softer, more porous, metasedimentary and sedimentary rocks deposited as ancient seabed, layer by layer, over millions of years. Different rocks with different cracks mean different hydrology.  

Planted almost exactly halfway along the Salmon’s course, near the sleepy town of Tamworth, lies the 59-hectare Kennedy Field Centre. It’s operated by the Civil Engineering department at Queen’s and, thanks to support from RBC, it’s becoming the home base for real-time monitoring of the entire river system.

“The Kennedy site is the central nucleus of what we call the model watershed,” says Queen’s researcher, Geof Hall. “We’re instrumenting the whole Salmon River from top to bottom with flow sensors, water quality sensors and weather stations to really understand the hydrological cycle. Imagine watching the response of the watershed as a whole as a storm passes through.”

Hall is Associate Director of the Water Research Centre (WRC) and oversees Kennedy with Civil Engineering Professor and WRC Director Kent Novakowski. Hall says there are research projects beyond the model watershed underway at Kennedy now. But the other key value of the field station, he adds, is as a real-world classroom. The site is equipped with wetlab and lecture facilities as well as other structures and equipment, fitted out also with support from the RBC Bluewater Project.

“The hands-on experience is the critical part of this whole facility,” says Hall. “We have students take soil samples to understand the makeup of the sediment and the soil that’s here. We drop cameras down the wells so they can see what the groundwater environment looks like and have them conduct experiments  so they can see that there are in fact channels through which contaminants move back and forth. We bring them down to the river so they can survey fish, invertebrates, the aquatic ecosystem, and the river itself.”

Hall says Kennedy is developing according to a 10-year plan but, he adds, the facility can be available for use by any Queen’s-affiliated group that has a good idea for it.

“We can function as if we were at Queen’s for the classroom or lab work and then simply step outside for access to the river,” says Hall. “The value in that is enormous.”