Stephanie deVilleneuve has been inspired and curious about the natural world throughout her life and that curiosity has led her to action.

A bust portrait of a white woman with long medium-brown hair. She is wearing a vibrant blue long-sleeved jacket over a loose-collared heather-blue blouse. She is smiling. The background is out of focus, but it suggests a green grass lawn hemmed by bushes and trees with yellow or sun-lit foliage. This is Stephanie deVilleneuve.
Stephanie deVilleneuve. (Texas Water Resources Institute photo by Ed Rhodes)

First environmental science captured her attention, then she was inspired by water and its importance. Most recently she has developed a passion for the interplay between water and soil as a doctoral student in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and research associate at the Texas Water Resources Institute, a unit of Texas A&M AgriLife.

DeVilleneuve has also been interested in environmental science since she was a child. She has pursued that ever since, including as a three-time Texas A&M student. Her life-long interest in these topics is now benefiting Texas residents and producers.

DeVilleneuve grew up in Sacramento, California, where ideas like recycling and environmental conservation were emphasized in school and the community. She was surprised as a second grader that her school had no recycling program, so she started one with the help of teachers.

Her family moved to Texas in her teens. After high school, she enrolled in Texas A&M University’s College of Geosciences, majoring in environmental geosciences. During her undergraduate studies, deVilleneuve was inspired to focus on water.

“Water really kind of spoke to me,” she said. “We will always need good quality water. Water quality and sustainability seem like the biggest environmental issue we’re going to be facing for the rest of our lives and our future generations.

“I want to be a part of that. Part of learning more about what we can do to preserve water quality and keep finding different ways to conserve even the quantity of water. This is something we really need people to research and learn about to make our world more sustainable.”

Watershed work

As first a research assistant, and now a research associate, for the Texas Water Resources Institute, deVilleneuve primarily works on watershed protection plans and watershed characterizations.

“I go out in the field and lead students and other employees to do water quality monitoring,” she said. “We go to these impaired watersheds and collect bacteria, nutrient and flow data to try and get a current picture of what the water quality is like.”

A woman wearing a blue sweatshirt, blue jeans, and knee-high waders stands in the middle of a shallow creek and is looking at a device that is attached to the top of a stick. This is Stephanie deVilleneuve. On the bank of the creek on the left side of the photo, a  man wearing a white baseball cap, red t-shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots is taking notes on a clipboard.
Stephanie deVilleneuve and a Urban Riparian and Stream Restoration Program colleague work characterizing the Angelina River in 2018. This is important information for watershed conservation efforts. (Texas Water Resources Institute photo by Ed Rhodes)

Data collected in the field is examined and compared with data from previous years. Through this analysis, deVilleneuve and her colleagues can determine whether water bodies are improving, the same or worsening.

DeVilleneuve focused on water quality work while completing her master’s degree through Texas A&M University’s Department of Water Management and Hydrological Sciences. Her thesis research involved fieldwork in Colorado.

“I looked at the water quality of step pool systems and if step pools had any impact on water quality in the mountains,” she said.

Step pools are a type of river channel consisting of steps formed by boulders and larger rocks. These steps span the entire water channel and provide a gradual slope for water flow. DeVilleneuve’s goal was to determine the impact of step pools on the overall quality of water in the sampled streams.

What deVilleneuve enjoys most about her work with TWRI is interacting with real stakeholders.

“When you sit behind a computer you do all this data crunching and you make all these maps. But it doesn’t mean as much to you until you actually go and talk to people who live there and see that they actually care about it, what that data means and what it says because they’re the ones that are impacted by it,” she explained.

A helpful challenge

Working with stakeholders, particularly agricultural producers, in Texas helped inspire deVillenuve to pursue her doctoral studies. To find her path, she asked herself where the gap in the research was. The answer turned out to be the interactions of soil and water.

“I think that’s something that’s obviously a really important interaction,” deVilleneuve said. “And I wanted to learn more about that and specialize in those interactions. So, I decided to go back to school and get a Ph.D. in soil science, combine water and soil science together and start doing research in that field.”

One specifically important interaction deVilleneuve is studying is nutrient leaching. Nutrient leaching is the process of water-soluble nutrients passing through the soil too quickly for plants to use them. This can happen because of excessive rain or irrigation. DeVilleneuve works with producers in Texas to improve soil and irrigation practices to minimize nutrient leaching.

But working with producers also presented deVilleneuve with her biggest challenge at TWRI — her inexperience in agriculture. She grew up in suburban areas and knew little about the language of agriculture producers and production.

DeVilleneuve asked producers and colleagues questions. She worked hard to improve her background knowledge and learned how to communicate effectively with stakeholders to answer their needs and questions.

“Now that I’ve interacted with them at education events, stakeholder meetings and even out in the field, I have a much better idea of their needs and concerns when it comes to water quality,” she said.

Looking to the future

After deVilleneuve earns her doctorate, she wants to continue her work by developing soil and water education for landowners. The work would focus on soil testing and best practices for maintaining healthy soil. It would also focus on best practices for irrigation and how soil and water interact.

“I really think there are so many different ways I could go about it,” she said. “As far as soil and water, I was thinking about how flooding impacts soil quality and climate change, things like that.”

She added that her ultimate goal would be to continue doing research projects on the interplay between soil and water.

“I really want to get to where I’m expanding on and even diversifying the types of published research and projects coming out of TWRI.”

The original story written by September Martin appeared in the July 2021 Conservation Matters newsletter. Conservation Matters is a joint project by the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute and the Texas Water Resources Institute.

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