Water-Quality Project Widens
Valley News Dispatch
29 December 2012
By Mary Ann Thomas, Staff Reporter
Mary Ann Thomas can be reached at 724-226-4691
Bald eagles soaring above the Allegheny River watershed are an
indication of cleaner water but a new study may determine just how
clean it is.
The majestic birds, once considered rare in the region, are more
numerous and visible at least in part because the fish they feed
on are more plentiful. That is a direct link to cleaner waterways
locally, which is the focus of the Three Rivers QUEST project.
The project started out as a study of the Monongahela River Basin
in 2009. But now, a $700,000 grant from the Colcom Foundation in
Pittsburgh is allowing the water quality project to expand to the
Allegheny and Ohio rivers.
The project is sponsored by the Quality Useful Environmental Study
Teams (QUEST) of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at
West Virginia University.
Field work begins in January to monitor the water quality of
rivers, paying particular attention to the effects of industrial
discharges, in eight counties: Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler,
Westmoreland, Indiana, Jefferson, Clarion and Cambria.
A long-range study
“This study provides for a large, very long-term look at a
watershed,” said Melissa O‘Neal, QUEST program manager.
The yearlong project covers over 30,000 square miles of the Upper
Ohio River Basin with 54 sampling locations, along the main stem
and at the mouths of major tributaries to the Monongahela,
Allegheny, and Ohio rivers.
“Geographically we‘re covering a large area and looking at total
dissolved solids and using that as an indicator and we are trying
to see the influence of treated and untreated mine drainage,” she
The study will provide a baseline, testing for a number of water
quality indicators including dissolved oxygen, temperature,
acidity, conductivity, fluoride, bromides, sulfate, nitrate, and
phosphate as well as metals.
Duquesne University, which received a $100,000 grant for the
project, will monitor water quality of the lower Allegheny River
and its key tributaries; the Iron Furnace Chapter of Pennsylvania
Trout Unlimited will test water at sites as far north as the
Allegheny National Forest, and Wheeling Jesuit University will
monitor the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to near Parkersburg, W.Va.
Getting a little help
The Three Rivers QUEST project joins a host of other local water
quality studies from the state Fish and Boat Commission, the
Department of Environmental Protection, the Western Pennsylvania
Conservancy and others.
“The important thing is that the study will be consistent with
taking biweekly grab samples for a year, hopefully longer” said
That‘s where local watershed and environmental groups come in.
Three Rivers QUEST will train local environmental groups to sample
water quality so results will be consistent and fit with the
overall study for a length of time.
This research effort will join a number of other studies on area
This year, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission was out
electro-shocking fish for surveys and a snapshot of water quality.
As the Allegheny River is home to the most species in the state,
the number of non-game fish have been increasing in the lower
Allegheny in last 15 years, according to Fish Commission reports.
Other studies on local waterways by the Western Pennsylvania
Conservancy recently turned up harbingers of quality water —
native brook trout and wild brown trout — in five streams in the
Little Mahoning Creek watershed in Indiana County.
Plagued by pollution
For Stan Kabala, associate director of Duquesne University‘s
Center for Environmental Research and Education, the study will
track the presence of new and persistent contaminants.
Historically, local rivers have been plagued by industrial
releases, sewage and abandoned mine drainage.
He likes to quote an engineer who in 1912 said: “The natural
function of a river is to carry waste to the seas.”
Disagreeing with that philosophy, Kabala said, “We‘ve made real
progress in recent decades on addressing causes of lower water
quality in the Allegheny and now we are potentially on the verge
of a new set of new threats from industry such as Marcellus shale
drilling and sewage.”
Kabala also points out the presence of non-point sources of water
pollution such as fertilizers from farms, herbicides from golf
courses and run-off from highways and parking lots.
The study will be an opportunity to develop a baseline of water
quality in the wake of potential pollution from Marcellus shale
“We‘re in Marcellus shale country and we don‘t‘ have a good base
line,” he said.
Study scientists plan to share their results with the public,
government agencies and other interested groups.
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be
reached at 724-226-4691 or email@example.com.