Monongahela monitoring program expands to Ohio and Allegheny Rivers

By on November 29, 2012

The West Virginia Water Research Institute has expanded a monitoring program from the Monongahela River to include the upper Ohio and Allegheny Rivers. After it was successfully implemented to reduce total dissolved solids in the Monongahela River—known locally as the Mon—a grant from the Colcom Foundation fueled expansion of the program.

“We started the QUEST program in 2009 when the Mon had high levels of dissolved solids, so it created problems with industrial issues, especially power plants and those that make steam,” said Dave Saville, outreach coordinator at the research institute. “The Marcellus shale drilling was just getting started and people were worried about how things would be affected.

“We received a grant from the USGS to start on the main stem of the Mon. We put together a program to monitor dissolved solids, because no one knew what was the cause of such high levels.”

The institute is located at West Virginia University, but the new QUEST program — Quality Useful Environmental Study Teams — will operate in multiple states, including parts of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and be called Three Rivers Quest.

“We took field measurements with YSI data sondes and looked at things like conductivity, pH, dissolved oxygen and had lab samples analyzed. We were able to identify the sources of the dissolved solids,” said Saville.

Coal mines are the biggest source of dissolved solids in this river system, according to Saville.

Identifying where the elevated levels were coming from was important as the Monongahela River is a source of drinking water for close to a million people. So the team went out every two weeks to collect samples, amassing many miles and long hours.

“It was an expensive program, so we wrote a grant proposal to Colcom and were able to expand it to include local watershed programs. That one-year program was successful, so Colcom gave us more funding to expand,” said Saville.

To identify partners for the expanded program, the institute put out a request for proposals which identified Duquesne University, which will manage the Southern Allegheny; the Iron Furnace Chapter of Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited, which will monitor the Northern Allegheny; and Wheeling Jesuit University, which will be responsible for the Upper Ohio.

“They’ll be doing sampling on the main stems and work with watershed groups in their areas, basically mimicking our successful program,” said Saville.

As proof of that success, Saville says total dissolved solids in the Monongahela River haven’t gone above 500 milligrams per liter in years. Using the data generated in the monitoring program, the research institute negotiated a managed discharged system used by the deep mines in the area. These active mines pump out water to allow miners and machinery to continue extracting coal.

“The managed discharge system is a volunteer program. The coal companies agreed that when the flow is low, they don’t pump as much. They have mines that are mined out so they keep pump water there,” said Saville.

Image: The Allegheny River at Washington’s Landing (Credit: Mike Rhoads, via Flickr)

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