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The jack of all trades

MES in the Community, Brian Byrnes

One local water expert widens his lens for a clearer future

“Water is elemental to our continued existence,” shares Brian Byrnes (Master of Environmental Studies, ’04), “it is the most important shared resource that we have and everyone needs and deserves clean water. We also have a shared responsibility to protect it.” As the director (and only full-time employee) of the Chester Ridley Crum Watersheds Association (CRC), Brian wears many hats to ensure the health and safety of his community's streams.

Thankfully, Brian is used to wearing many hats. In his career, he has been an easement expert with the Brandywine Conservancy and ran the Important Bird Area Program with the National Audubon Society before landing at the CRC. He’s also the father of three boys: one six-year-old and a set of four-year-old twins. If anyone can multi-task, it’s Brian Byrnes.

The multi-disciplinary nature of Penn’s MES program prepared Brian for the ever-changing current of his field. “How do we apply the science to these sticky real-world situations where there are economics, politics and sociology that critically need to be addressed?” he asks, “The variety of coursework and fieldwork I was able to take through the MES program positioned me well to deal with those kinds of situations.”

While studying at Penn, Brian primarily focused on resource management and biology, but he also explored urban sprawl and law. In those classes, he gained insight into the many factors that cause environmental changes. “You realize you’re not working in a vacuum when you study at Penn. In the conservation field it’s important to understand the policies that can be taken by governments or approaches that can be taken at the local level to mitigate the effects of sprawl and still preserve ecological integrity and water quality.”

Penn is also positioned in one of the nation’s largest and most environmentally-focused cities. As a native of Springfield, PA, the exposure to urban life opened Brian up to the complexities and wide reach of environmental issues. He shares, “In many respects the environmental field has evolved to recognize that cities can be very environmentally friendly. It certainly imprinted on me that no matter where you live, you have a local environment.”

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When it comes to water quality, Brian highlights the important symbiotic relationship all of our local environments have. “The city and the countryside are connected in many ways,” he adds, “Philadelphia is at the bottom of the Schuylkill River. Downstream cities are dependent on everyone upstream making good decisions and providing clean water to enter the city. Obviously, cities also have a lot of work to do in making sure that water doesn’t degrade inside their boundaries.”

So how exactly can everyday people in cities, suburbs and rural communities do their part? It’s quite simple, according to Brian, “Anything that you can do to slow rainwater from running off of your property and reduce the amount of 'stuff'— which is a nonscientific term, but rather accurate—that water is carrying into our streams through our drain systems. Build a rain garden, plant a tree or use rain barrels. Minimizing or eliminating pesticides and fertilizers is crucial, too.” He adds with a laugh, “Local watershed associations are always looking for volunteers.”

In its 20th year, the Master of Environmental Studies program offers now, more than ever, opportunities for students like Brian Byrnes to dive into the complex challenges facing our natural world today. Learn more about the MES program’s history and future by visiting the 20th anniversary website.