ECU undergrad fighting regional erosion

Rising East Carolina University junior Nathan Rowe knew that his summer internship with the Tyrrell County Soil and Water Conservation District wouldn’t be boring.

He just didn’t know quite how exciting it would be.

“So here we are, coming back to the truck after a day of spraying for alligator weed, and we realize the water in the sound is kind of rough and choppy,” Rowe said. “Next thing I know, we’re riding down a ditch alongside the road, churning up mud and water as we try to make it back. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going to be bored this summer.”

A major component of Nathan Rowe’s work as an intern at the Tyrrell County Soil and Water Conservation District involves him using GIS – geographic information system mapping technology – to compare soil erosion over different decades.

Rowe’s internship in a county with just 4,200 residents has been anything but mundane. While the thought of working in a rural community could drive away some potential students, Rowe said he enjoys the peaceful setting.

“I’m from Northampton County, so this kind of lifestyle is nothing new to me,” Rowe said. “It’s rural and agricultural-based. Tyrrell County is a lot like home.”

Rowe’s internship with the district is part of ECU’s SECU Public Service Fellows internship program, hosted by the Office of Community Engagement and Research. The program partners the university with regional communities through projects that address community-identified priorities. Undergraduate student placements provide opportunities for fellows to develop leadership, analytical, problem solving, communication and project management skills, as well as allowing them to network in professional settings.

Rowe, an applied geography major, said he was concerned that he “didn’t know enough” when his internship began. A main component of Rowe’s work at the district involves him using GIS – geographic information system mapping technology – to compare soil erosion over different decades.

“I wasn’t confident that I was prepared,” Rowe said. “I now recognize that the PSF program does a good job of placing you where you fit, even if you don’t believe it at first.

“I’d worked with georeferencing a bit, but I wasn’t as confident as I should have been in my skill set,” he said. “The first time I uploaded the photos and mapped them, everything went smooth. The older images have been difficult, but I’ve learned new techniques and skills to adjust and manipulate the images. I’ve learned a lot about GIS this summer.”

Rowe said the images he’s uploading, mapping and georeferencing in GIS will help Tyrrell County residents visualize how erosion has affected different areas of the county.

“Using GIS, we can see which areas have been most affected by erosion and which areas have slowed the progression,” he said. “We can look at what has stopped erosion in some areas and how we can improve other regions so they suffer less from erosion over time.”

Tyrrell County Soil and Water District Manager Ty Fleming said having Rowe on his team has been beneficial to the community.

“The community may not know exactly what Nathan is doing, but I want them to know that he’s here helping them,” Fleming said. “In a county like Tyrrell, that doesn’t have a lot of money or resources to hire outside workers or consultants, having the university work with us and provide interns that help solve critical needs we’ve identified, has been huge. We’d be stretched thin without Nathan’s help.”

Rowe is the fourth intern the district has hosted during the internship program’s history.

“The SECU Public Service Fellows internship program has provided us four great students, all with different areas of expertise,” Fleming said. “Past interns have helped us push for drainage service districts to help maximize drainage and storm water runoff in our local watershed, tested water quality and nutrient levels in water sources throughout the county, tested for salt influx in groundwater and they’re now helping digitize and survey aerial maps to track erosion. Every time we’ve worked with the program, it’s been great.”

With just a few weeks left before his internship ends, Rowe hopes that he’s made a difference in the lives of the people living in Tyrrell County.

“I hope they’ve benefited by the photo layers I’ve created in GIS,” Rowe said. “It should be a lot easier for everyone to see which areas are farmland, which are wetlands and which areas have suffered the most from erosion. Hopefully it can be used to create new programs, services and information to help the county.”

To learn more about the SECU Public Service Fellows internship program, visit the Office of Community Engagement and Research online. Read more about the Tyrrell County Soil and Water District and its project on its website.