WVU Institute partners with volunteers on “QUEST”

Written by WVU Today on . Posted in Media, News

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Brian Carlson

Brian Carlson, a WVU graduate student in wildlife and fisheries, searches for sediment inputs in Aaron’s Creek as part of Mon River Quest.

Mon River Quest isn’t the name of an upcoming Indiana Jones movie; it isn’t a board game you can find in the local toy store; and it isn’t the name of some kind of river geography quiz. Mon River Quest is a major West Virginia University -based initiative that is empowering hundreds of volunteers in an effort to keep an eye on thousands of miles of Monongahela River tributary streams so that any detected irregularities can be quickly monitored, traced and alleviated.

The project, funded by the Colcom Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based private foundation dedicated to fostering a sustainable environment, represents an unprecedented level of community involvement in pursuit of water quality information and a prime example of WVU’s outreach mission to make lives better by seeking ways to head off potential environmental problems.

WVU is home to the West Virginia Water Research Institute , a premier water research center where experts have already established a monitoring program that, in cooperation with coal companies, has helped control total dissolved solids – known as TDS – that sometimes result from energy recovery operations in the Mon River basin.

TDS is a measure of inorganic and organic materials dissolved in water. High levels of TDS in surface water may be due to several factors including: sedimentation, mining, gas well drilling flow-back water, or storm water runoff. When TDS is high it can interfere with municipal and industrial water users.

The EPA’s secondary drinking water standard is based mainly on aesthetic considerations like taste and spotting on dishes. However, there are other aspects of high TDS levels. For example, if sodium is a major component ofTDS, then people with sodium restricted diets may need to switch to bottled water. In addition, high TDS levels impose additional costs on industrial water users like power plants that require low TDS water for their steam boilers.

The Mon River water monitoring success was built on an effort that samples water quality at four points along the river and at the mouths of 12 of the Mon’s major tributaries every two weeks. But, there is much more to the Monongahela River basin than the intersection of the river with its tributaries. The river originates in north-central West Virginia; is 128 miles long; and has a drainage basin of 7,340 square miles. Nearly one million people get their drinking water from the River.

Now, armed with Colcom Foundation backing, West Virginia Water Research Institute Director Paul Ziemkiewicz has developed an expanded effort aimed at detecting changes in water quality in a wider range and calls on local watershed groups and volunteers to get involved.

“We have built a system that is already yielding an unprecedented amount of data on a big river system,” Ziemkiewicz said. “What we are missing is data from the headwater streams of the main Monongahela tributaries. By expanding this project to include a network of volunteers, the data set will be much greater and provide a better overall picture of the health of the Mon River Basin. This is especially relevant now because of the rise of the gas well drilling activity.”

The expanded Mon River QUEST project seeks to send an army of monitoring volunteers into the field to monitor water quality in an expanded region, including the headwaters of Mon River tributaries – an exercise that will greatly enhance the ability to spot problems well ahead of new energy developments including the Marcellus shale drilling operations in the region.

Although many local watershed groups are working to protect the Monongahela and its tributaries from pollutants, the resources it takes to implement a successful monitoring program can be limited. As part of the initiative, participating watershed groups and volunteers are provided resources such as monitoring equipment and training opportunities to help make their monitoring efforts more effective.

Mon River QUEST Program Manager Melissa O’Neal added, “Mon River Quest will help the volunteers learn about protocols for monitoring water using equipment provided by the program, and provide data management and display to allow watershed groups to share their data publicly.”

In a “train the trainer” workshop hosted by the Water Research Institute at the National Research Center for Coal and Energy, watershed group leaders and other volunteers learned about standard monitoring protocols and quality assurance of the data, and will return to the field to show their organization’s volunteers how to effectively participate in the initiative and remain vital players in the river system’s early warning system. Part of the training was conducted by an award-winning group known as the Alliance for Aquatic Resources Monitoring, a project of the environmental studies department of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania – a state with more stream miles per land area than any other state in the nation.

“The whole idea is that if a hot spot, or water quality problem, is detected, these groups can pinpoint it and can determine the appropriate agency to contact as well as request our assistance in collecting samples for laboratory analysis on the chemical makeup of the TDS,” O’Neal said. “There is no statewide or industry-centric agenda in this effort, just people who care about their watersheds. As gas exploration and other water quality threats increase throughout the Mon Basin, water quality changes can be monitored and responses to water quality disruptors can be timely addressed.”

Like data collected by Water Research Institute staff, volunteer data will be displayed on an interactive web site that uses programming from GISmapping software. Users can visualize the water quality of the river basin at given locations or times. By clicking on a site location, a pop-up window provides data on water quality parameters monitored along with graphs and charts.

Reliability of the data is of key importance to the effort and is why the Water Research Institute developed a three-tier system for rating the confidence level of the data. If a single volunteer with no backup collects data, the results are classified as having the least credibility. Tier two in the system consists of data that is internally reviewed and double checked against samples taken by a second volunteer. Tier three, and the data designated has having the most credibility, consists of sample results that have been independently verified. Volunteers will be trained in the differences in the triple tiered data system.

Ziemkiewicz is fond of noting that “a little science goes a long way.” He and the other experts at the Water Research Institute are hoping that the new expanded Mon River Quest will reinforce that contention and use a little science and a lot of dedicated volunteers to keep the Monongahela River clean.

For more information on the Mon River QUEST project or how to get involved, visit www.monriverquest.com.

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