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Summer of Salmon: Whitman Students Intern at South Fork of Walla Walla River

By Afrika Brown

Hailey Kirlin '19 and Shelby Cutter '19 set viewpoints on a GPS system.
Hailey Kirlin '19 and Shelby Cutter '19 set viewpoints on a GPS system.

While some spend their summers under air conditioners trying to beat the heat, Whitman College geology majors Hailey Kirlin ‘19 and Shelby Cutter ‘19 spent theirs braving triple digit temperatures trekking through the south fork of the Walla Walla River in fishing waders .

Over the years, human interference has changed the natural state of the river's water flow. The unnatural straightening of the river caused the channel bed to weaken, resulting in adverse effects for the salmon and steelhead that inhabit the river. The shallow pools of water create an unstable environment for salmon spawning.

"When salmon make their redds, you need to have fairly fine-sized material in the streams so that they can kind of use their bodies to push the gravel aside," said Assistant Professor Lyman Persico, who teaches geology and environmental studies..

This summer, Kirlin and Cutter were able to transfer the knowledge learned in their geomorphology class to a real-life scenario interning for the Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council, thanks to an internship grant from the Student Engagement Center. Working with the council, the two-person team used state-of-the-art GPS equipment provided by Whitman to survey the river and record their findings. The data they collected included taking pebble counts and stream discharge and velocity measurements.

The second part of the internship takes place in a computer lab. To help correct the river flow, large woody debris, such as tree trunks, are placed in the river, slowing the flow of water. The students then analyze the data using ArcGIS, a geographic information systems tool that can use geographic data to create and analyze maps

"We collect points with our GPS that we have and we import them on to this computer and then it creates a map for us," Cutter said.

The interns also are creating a training guide for future interns who embark on this work.

The genesis for the internship came from a field trip the students participated in while taking Persico's geomorphology class.

"We did this huge fluvial lab in geomorph where we're basically measuring the slope and stream discharge of the river," Kirlin said, "I really liked that field work aspect of geology."

The labs Kirlin and Cutter attended provided great preparation for the rising seniors as they began their field work for the watershed council.

"If I didn't do the fluvial lab, I would not be prepared," Cutter said. "I would not be prepared for the long hours, for all the equipment you have to carry while you're doing all of that."

Kirlin agreed. "I wasn't feeling swamped. When they used vocab, I knew what it meant."

While the internships end in the middle of August, Kirlin and Cutter said the experience was useful when thinking about career choices after Whitman.

"It's nice to know I can hold my own with people that have jobs in the real world," Kirlin said. "I'm making connections with those people and it's a nice feeling to have when you're going into senior year."

Published on Jul 26, 2018
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