Research into vulnerable water resources has led a West Virginia University graduate student to a prestigious fellowship from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Eric Merriam, a doctoral candidate in wildlife and fisheries resources in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is the second WVU student ever to be awarded the EPA’s STAR Graduate Fellowship. He will receive up to $42,000 a year to cover tuition, fees and stipends for graduate school.

The goal of Merriam’s research is to protect water resources in Appalachian watersheds from the effects of mine runoff. Watersheds are areas that drain to a common waterway, such as a river or creek, and help sustain life for many plants and animals. His research can improve modeling and prediction capabilities so that scientists can assess how current and future land-use activities, like mountaintop mining and the Marcellus Shale gas development, will affect water quality and habitats.

“A major theme of my research is the importance of placing surface-mining impacts within the context of other human impacts,” he said. “For example, the impact of surface mining combines with the impact of untreated municipal wastewater, which is unfortunately common throughout much of the central Appalachian region.”

“Management efforts that focus solely on surface mining will have minimal benefits to water quality and ecological conditions, such as recreational fisheries,” Merriam explained. “We need to start developing management approaches that address all relevant stressors, including insufficient wastewater treatment infrastructure, legacy impacts from historical mining, as well as contemporary mountaintop mines.”

Promoting stewardship of water resources is one of WVU’s five “Mountains of Excellence,” areas that address significant challenges, particularly for the state and the region.

“Eric’s research has been well funded by both the EPA and industry through the Appalachian Research Initiative in Environmental Science,” said Todd Petty, professor of wildlife and fisheries resources and associate director of the Environmental Research Center at WVU. “Eric is also well published in the journal Freshwater Science and he has several additional papers in the pipeline.”

It was Petty’s encouragement that inspired Merriam to apply for the fellowship. “Honestly, I would not have been aware of this opportunity without his guidance. I am grateful for his mentorship as my graduate advisor.”

As part of his fellowship responsibilities, Merriam will be teaching a course on the ecology of Appalachian rivers and attending a weeklong symposium with other STAR fellowship recipients from around the country. He will also be completing a final portion of his dissertation that will determine whether or not water quality in streams throughout southern West Virginia have changed as expected over time as the intensity of mountaintop mining has changed.

The Science To Achieve Results Graduate Fellowship program supports masters and doctoral candidates in environmental studies. Masters-level students can receive support for a maximum of two years. Doctoral students can be supported for three years, with a possible fourth year under certain circumstances. The fellowships are granted annually following a rigorous review process.

Since the program began in 1995, the EPA has awarded nearly 2,000 STAR fellowships to students in every state. Fellowships have helped educate new academic researchers, government scientists, science teachers and environmental engineers.