Civil engineer Rachel Pichelmann grew up in Nicollet County, Minnesota, on a 300-acre farm where her parents grew corn and soybeans and raised hogs. Alongside her sister, Pichelmann was an avid 4-H member who loved preparing projects for the county fair, hoping to earn a trip to the State Fair each year. During her senior year in high school, her mother, a DNR employee, suggested that Rachel consider participating in one of MPCA’s citizen water monitoring programs and use that as a basis for her next 4-H project. “It seemed like a good idea,” Pichelmann says, looking back on her choice: “every year, we needed to brainstorm ideas for our projects, and I was always interested in science-based subjects.”
As a participant in the Citizen Stream Monitoring Program (CSMP), Pichelmann gathered daily rainfall and water clarity data from a county ditch that runs through her parent’s farm, in the Rush River Watershed in south-central Minnesota. Her 4-H project used this data to draw a correlation between precipitation and water quality, while also taking land use and vegetation into account. Pichelmann remembers feeling very satisfied when she plotted the precipitation and turbidity measurements and saw a clear correlation. “It helped me visualize how sediment can be transported by runoff and lead to water quality issues. Analyzing the data forced me to think about water quality on a larger scale, something I hadn’t done previously.”
Following high school, Pichelmann headed south to Iowa State University to earn a bachelor’s degree. She had always enjoyed math and science, so pursuing a degree in engineering was a natural fit for her. She was confident she wanted to study civil engineering, but her recent experience with citizen monitoring inspired her to select an environmental emphasis, which meant additional coursework in water chemistry, advanced hydrology, and waste/wastewater treatment. It all came together and finally “clicked” in her hydrology class, she says. “Having that past real-life experience helped me understand the concepts.”
Volunteer monitoring opened her eyes to the close connections between land use and water quality. “Seeing the direct correlation between precipitation and turbidity helped me visualize how runoff can transport sediment into waterways, and how it can carry chemicals and nutrients with it,” she says. "And you don’t have to be an environmental scientist or engineer to understand the significant potential impacts," Pichelmann says. “What we put into our water, whether purposefully or inadvertently, can really affect our quality of life. The water treatment plant has been designed to treat the source water to make it safe for consumption, but if the quality of the source water is extremely degraded, the treatment plant may not be able to provide adequate treatment.”
She mentions the example of Iowa, where public water supply systems have invested at least $1.8 million in nitrate treatment since 2000, according to the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at her alma mater. Ensuring clean water for drinking or recreational use is a health and safety issue, but also a significant financial issue for communities, says Pichelmann. In short, “if you drink water, or enjoy swimming or fishing in lakes or streams, you should care about water quality.”
In her nearly 10 years as a professional engineer, Pichelmann has turned her attention to responsible management of water resources. “With significant flooding and extreme rainfall events becoming more common, there is a need to understand flood risk, and design infrastructure with minimal flood damage potential,” Pichelmann says. She currently works for Short Elliott Hendrickson, Inc. in Mankato, designing smart, efficient drainage systems and working with communities to both understand their risk and to minimize flooding from rivers or inadequate urban drainage systems. She also evaluates proposed infrastructure projects such as roads, dams, and bridges to ensure they won’t result in an increased flood risk.
What did she enjoy most about volunteering with MPCA’s citizen monitoring program? “Knowing that the data I collected was going to be used by others increased my dedication and interest in the project,” Pichelmann says. Receiving the Grand Champion award in the Natural Resources and Water category for her 4-H project at the Nicollet County Fair, and then at the Minnesota State Fair, probably didn’t hurt either. She also enjoyed doing work that required her to be outside, and still loves that aspect of her job today.
To find out how to become a water monitor, visit MPCA’s Citizen water monitoring page.