The week before Christmas, environmental science major Lilly Smith ’22 was busy collecting trash from around a local creek. The project, which involved members of her immediate family, a coworker from the James River Association, and a University of Lynchburg professor and his son, was part of research Smith is doing for her Westover Honors College thesis.
“This week was the first step in actual data collection for the project,” Smith said in late December.
She added that the group “went out to three locations along Fishing Creek to do trash collection and area characteristic analysis … to see where heavier amounts of trash can be found. The same process will be done along Blackwater Creek at a later date to compare the findings of the two creeks.”
Dr. Dave Perault, a biology and environmental science professor at the University of Lynchburg, is assisting Smith on the project and participated in the recent trash collection with his 9-year-old son.
“Lilly is comparing a well-known watershed in Lynchburg, Blackwater Creek, with one that is far less known, Fishing Creek,” Perault explained. “She is creating maps delineating each drainage, summarizing features like public parks, conservation areas, and trails. And she is collecting trash within each drainage to assess negative public impacts.”
The collection along Fishing Creek continues a project that began months ago and will extend through the spring semester. Before heading into the field, Smith and Perault spent about four months mapping the area around the two creeks.
Perault teaches a class in geographic information systems, or GIS, at the University of Lynchburg. Smith took the class in the fall of 2020. Perault described her current project as a “great chance to work face-to-face on an applied mapping project.”
Using Esri’s ArcGIS software, Smith and Perault mapped the areas to be studied. “[It] allowed us to obtain an overview of the two locations’ area, total resource conservation, trail access points, and city recreation,” Smith said.
“These assessments support my idea for the need of more recreational developments in the Fishing Creek watershed, such as trailways, as we know the popularity and heavy foot traffic that the Blackwater Creek trails receive.”
Smith said Perault has been involved in the project every step of the way. “He has significantly assisted in the GIS map creation, as he has more expertise than I,” she said, adding, “I [also] want to ensure that the maps are comprehensible for people outside of the science realm, and Dr. Perault’s organization really helps with that.”
Smith, a Lynchburg resident who spends a lot of time in the Blackwater Creek Natural Area, said her project originated with Rob Campbell, a community conservationist with the James River Association. Campbell also assisted in the Fishing Creek trash collection.
Smith did her internship with the Richmond-based nonprofit and has since stayed on as an environmental educator. “Rob … knows about my passion for our local waterways, limiting pollution, and supporting the broader Lynchburg community,” she said.
Campbell is also helping Smith make sense of what they’ve found along the creeks. “The ultimate goal of this project is to determine if the presence of a trailway helps to limit trash found around a creek,” Smith said.
“Blackwater Creek is known for its extensive trail system. I personally use it an immense amount and hardly find much trash along the trailway, and [a] minimal [amount] within the water. I hypothesized that maybe the decreased amount of trash was due to its trail system allowing for increased usage and people’s desire to keep the area clean.
“From Rob’s analysis of trash found along Fishing Creek and its underdeveloped trail system, I hypothesized that more trash would be found along Fishing Creek than Blackwater Creek. The comparison of trash found at the three points of the two creeks will assist in supporting or rejecting the hypothesis.”
Smith plans to submit her findings to officials at the city of Lynchburg, which manages the Blackwater Creek Natural Area. More specifically, she hopes her research can contribute to the city’s comprehensive plan, in particular its plans for the Tyreanna and Pleasant Valley neighborhoods, which are near Fishing Creek.
She also would like to submit her thesis, “Comparing the Physical Trash Presence along Fishing Creek and Blackwater Creek to Determine Possible Mitigation Efforts to Boost the Value of Fishing Creek,” for publication.
“Submitting to a journal will definitely be considered in hopes of the research helping others,” she said.