Tufts Professor Discovers Aquifer under Outdoor Lab

Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences Professor Grant Garven had a system of underground boreholes installed on Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus for his classes but has since discovered an aquifer 50 feet below the surface.

In hydrogeology, this was a noteworthy find, particularly since engineers had long ago ruled out the possibility of an underground water source. In 1861, the city of Charlestown, Mass., was so convinced of this that it built a reservoir on the site and filled it with water pumped from the Mystic Lakes as an emergency water supply.

Garven, who came to Tufts' geology department in 2007 after teaching for 25 years at Johns Hopkins University, says the aquifer is just the type of discovery that will enhance his students' understanding of hydrogeology – which is the study of how water moves underground through soil and bedrock.

Most of Garven's students are majoring in geology or civil and environmental engineering. Under his direction, the class of 27 budding hydrogeologists operates underground cameras, meters and other state-of-the-art equipment at the monitoring sites to map patterns of groundwater flow and record variations in temperature, chemical composition and pressure. The boreholes will be used for teaching purposes and not as a water source.

Monitoring wells are uncommon on university campuses in the Boston area. The advantage of having a borehole monitoring system on campus, he says, is that students can translate theory into real-world practice. Having a well system on campus also eliminates the need for Garven to take his class on field trips to Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, where the federal government maintains monitoring systems to evaluate groundwater conditions as part of a cleanup program there.

On Tufts' campus, Garven sited the boreholes at different elevations. His first monitoring well, and the one that tapped the aquifer, was drilled behind the Olin Center at the highest elevation on Tufts' campus. The other two wells were drilled at lower elevations – one near the Campus Center and a third site near the Powderhouse rotary at the campus periphery. Each borehole reaches about 120 to 200 feet into the Earth. The installations were made possible by startup funding from the geology department and the School of Arts and Sciences. Professor Garven also holds a secondary appointment in the Tufts School of Engineering.

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