My River POV: 2023 Environmental Sciences Interns

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Last Updated on January 30, 2024

The “My River POV” series provides readers the opportunity to learn about the unique insight and experiences of the San Antonio River Authority (River Authority) staff and their personal connection to the San Antonio River in hopes of inspiring stewardship of area creeks and rivers.

Madeline McDonald, 2023 Mike Gonzales Intern*

In the fall of 2022, as an environmental studies student at Baylor University, I took a Field Techniques class. I was taught valuable knowledge about aquatic monitoring procedures, and I knew that this experience would come in handy when looking for future jobs and internships. Upon seeing the River Authority’s Michael Gonzales Internship posting in the spring, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to apply what I learned in the classroom to real-world experience. Within my first few days, I immediately felt welcomed by my team and every new person I met. The core values of stewardship, integrity, and excellence shone through every aspect of our work. It did not take long for me to feel integrated into the team, and I quickly learned that you can never be too prepared for the everyday tasks and activities at the River Authority!

A typical day working for the River Authority begins by waking up around 5 AM. This early morning routine sounds intimidating, but it is preferred when we spend so much time outdoors in the Texas heat! When I arrive at the office at 6 AM, work starts immediately with packing and prepping our supplies for the day. Checklists are needed to be sure we do not forget anything because we often travel to sites far down the river. Because we spend the majority of our day outside, water bottles and snacks are some of our most essential supplies!

Young woman measuring dept in the river.

Here, I am measuring depth during a habitat survey!

We conducted plenty of biological surveys this summer, which became one of my favorite things to do at the River Authority. I learned to use tools such as a seine net, catch and identify fish, and observe how habitats change along the river. These surveys are necessary because they tell us about the characteristics of the river, which contribute to determining its overall health. For example, discovering high native fish biodiversity during a survey indicates that the river is doing well. The hands-on experience I received through conducting these surveys is invaluable and not something every student gets the opportunity to do!

Woman hold longnose gar fish

A longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus), one of my favorite fish, we caught during a biological survey!

I was also extremely lucky to be a part of the River Authority’s ongoing freshwater mussel reintroduction. I learned why freshwater mussels are crucial for aquatic ecosystems, and I participated in their reintroduction into the San Antonio River. I got to transfer the mussels into floating baskets and monitor them as they grew and developed over the next few months. It was so exciting to see them thrive in their new home!

Woman pulls long net out of bay water

I conducted zebra mussel sampling with a tow net!

One of the most fundamental skills I learned from my summer internship is to be prepared for anything; no project or task will go exactly according to plan, so it is key to be flexible! The experiences I gained from being the Michael Gonzales intern at the River Authority were valuable, rewarding, and informative, and I know that I will be able to apply these skills I learned to any future job!

*The Michael Gonzales Memorial internship was established in 2012 to honor Michael Gonzales, former Deputy Director of Technical Services at the San Antonio River Authority. This internship opportunity is awarded annually to a highly motivated, outstanding undergraduate student from a Texas institute of higher education. It is designed to stimulate interest in careers in environmental sciences among groups underrepresented in these professions. The candidate selected will intern with the San Antonio River Authority Environmental Sciences Department (ESD) in San Antonio, Texas.

Macy Oyala

Macy Oyala, Environmental Laboratory Intern

Coming from an academic research background in chemistry, I wasn’t entirely sure about the type of work I wanted to be involved in after graduating from Trinity University. I received a bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, yet I performed organic synthesis in a physical chemistry research lab. I felt as if I spread myself too thin by being involved in the various subtypes of chemistry. However, I decided to explore my interests in the environmental sciences as my undergraduate research was related to the natural environment. Fortunately, the River Authority valued my diverse background, which led to my 13-week stay at the agency’s environmental laboratory.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this internship as I had no first-hand knowledge of labs outside of academia. My first few weeks consisted of shadowing the scientists in their respective lab tasks. Once I became more acquainted with the lab operations, I assisted the primary analysts by running their tests and instrument maintenance under their supervision. There’s something oddly meditative when measuring samples and preparing standards, so I enjoyed the hands-on experience. All the scientists at the River Authority walked me through each analysis, guiding me at a comfortable pace. Many analysts have repeatedly told me, “Scientists are not robots, and humans normally make mistakes.” This simple lesson can come a long way in a scientific environment (in addition to lining out the error and writing down the initial and date in blue ink).

Group of student tour science lab.

Students from St. Mary’s University tour the River Authority lab.

Halfway through the internship, I became most familiar with analyzing total organic carbon, anions, and ortho phosphorous in the water samples that were collected by the field team. A deviation within these chemical concentrations could lead to adverse effects within the river, such as excess plant growth, fish kills, or algal blooms. By measuring these parameters, we can track the chemical quality of the San Antonio River, which supports both plant and animal life.

Scientist takes out samples from machine during maintenance.

Instrument maintenance and upkeep: Here, I am changing the guard column located inside the ion chromatography instrument in the Anions lab.

One of the projects that I assisted in was the Effluent Signature Study of the San Antonio River (SAR). This study aims to detect the presence or absence of human fecal pollution, which is essential in assessing the safety of the river. I was able to partake in selecting sample sites and decided to divide the SAR by sub-watershed to understand the river system better. In addition, I assisted in filtering and extracting DNA from preliminary samples, which was followed by qPCR analysis. I look forward to seeing the data that River Authority obtains and the actions it will take in response to the information gathered from this upcoming study!

River stream

One of the many sites I visited to initiate the effluent signature study was Martinez II Wastewater Treatment Plant downstream site.

From my time at the River Authority, I have learned that the organization is one big family that contributes to the goal of ensuring a safe and healthy river for the public to enjoy. I am beyond grateful for the connections I have made with the people here at the River Authority and for being a part of its mission. This has been an exciting and unforgettable experience that will impact my future endeavors as an aspiring scientist.

Want to be an intern at the River Authority? We’d love for you to join our team! Stay up to date with current opportunities on our Career Webpage.

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Acequia Trail Notice

The Acequia trail will have heavy traffic near MROC starting May 22nd until further notice. The SAWS Acequia project will be bringing in crews to work on the lift station site and across the street. There will have flaggers to stop traffic, please use caution. 

SASPAMCO Paddling Trail

The SASPAMCO paddling trail is open from River Crossing Park to Helton Nature Park.
*Please Note: Paddling Trail from Helton Nature Park to HWY 97 is still closed due to blockages. 

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