River Researchers Help Assess Monongahela Water's 'Health'

McKeesport Daily News
19 January 2012
By Eric Slagle

It's a cold January morning.

Ben Mack, a research associate from West Virginia University's West Virginia Water Research Institute, leaves a fresh set of boot prints in the snow as he walks down the ramp leading to the shore of the Monongahela River in Elizabeth.

Mack is carrying a backpack full of plastic jugs, a sophisticated meter that measures water quality, and a tattered log book, tools of a trade he's been practicing on a bi-weekly basis for two years as part of a university research program.

Mon River Quest samples the Monongahela River and its tributaries at 16 locations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Western Maryland, with stops in the Keystone State measuring as far north as Elizabeth on the Mon and Sutersville on the Youghiogheny.

Until now, the sampling work has been carried out by university employees. Now the program is being expanded to include watershed groups and other volunteers as sample takers.

The sampling program provides a record of factors used to measure river health such as water temperature, conductivity, total dissolved solids (TDS) content, oxygen and pH.

"It's mostly driving. It only takes about five or 10 minutes to take the sample," said Mack, who in addition to visiting Elizabeth will make a handful of other sampling stops in Pennsylvania and West Virginia before the day is done. Samples collected this day will help determine water quality on the Yough in Sutersville and near its confluence with Sewickley Creek, and Mon tributaries Ten Mile Creek, Whitely Creek, Dunkard Creek, the Cheat River and White Day Creek.

At the end of the circuit, Mack, who lives in Washington, takes the samples back to the Morgantown campus for analysis.

WVWRI director Paul Ziemkiewicz said the expansion effort to include volunteers and watershed groups "gives us more feet on the ground."

The institute hopes a growing group of volunteers will bring in data that is currently missing from headwater streams that feed into the Mon, and provide a better overall picture of the river basin's health. Volunteers receive training on how to use water monitoring equipment and proper procedure for recording their findings.

Collecting baseline data from streams is essential for determining what impact mining and drilling activities are having on the river basin. Marcellus shale drilling has resulted in increased levels of salt and bromides in rivers and streams. Water becomes a better conductor of electricity when salts are added.

Water pumped out of mines and into rivers tends to result in higher levels of TDS being measured.

Ziemkiewicz said the institute has worked with mine operators to reduce the flow of mine water into rivers when river levels are low in late summer. By holding back the flow when water levels are down and releasing more mine water when rivers are high, fewer TDS are entering the river, he said.

Results of the sampling efforts are available online at Mon River Quest's website http://www.monwq.net.

Noting that the network of sampling crosses state lines, Ziemkiewicz said, "The data is out there for anyone that wants to use it."

Two Pennsylvania groups that are working with the institute are the Greene County Watershed Alliance and the Washington County Watershed Alliance.

Terri Davin of Waynesburg is the project coordinator of the Greene County Watershed Alliance. She said their group found its purpose after a mining-related toxic algae bloom resulted in a massive fish kill in Dunkard Creek in 2009. She said the group vowed then "to never let this happen again."

She said the Greene County group has about 12 volunteers monitoring 25 sites along streams in that county. Sampling frequency varies daily, weekly and monthly depending on the situation, she said. The data they collect is shared with Mon River Quest.

"We thought it was really important to protect our local streams and our downstream neighbors," she said.

WVWRI outreach coordinator Dave Saville said, "What we're interested in with our volunteers is creating a first alert to monitoring disruptions."

Saville said the institute hopes to have another volunteer training session in March.

Mon River Quest appears to have broad-based support from diverse institutions.

The volunteer initiative is funded by the Pittsburgh-based Colcom Foundation. The Alliance for Aquatic Resources Monitoring based in Dickinson College in Carlisle has provided some of the training to volunteers at the National Research Center for Coal and Energy in Morgantown. Davin said her group has gotten support from volunteer sample takers from Waynesburg University, and Saville said Penn State University has expressed interest in creating a similar monitoring program.

Peters Creek Watershed Association president Tim Schumann, who lives in Clairton, said he knows about Mon River Quest but was unfamiliar with the volunteer monitoring program.

"It's definitely something worth looking into," said Schumann, who noted his organization has shared its water monitoring data with Trout Unlimited.

"You've got to have baseline data; it's absolutely essential," said Schumann, whose organization is trying to recover damages from Pennsylvania American Water in relation to a water line break last summer that resulted in chlorinated water in a ton of stored road salt being washed into the stream and killing fish.

Groups and individuals interested in getting involved with Mon River Quest should contact the program's volunteer coordinator Glenn Waldron at 304-293-7085.

Eric Slagle can be reached at eslagle@dailynewsemail.com or 412-664-9161.