Meters, Metrics, and People Power

Investigating water quality

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Credit: Alev Bilginsoy
Volunteers taking measurements in Soquel Creek
A long row of gently aging tin cabins lines the wooded shore of Douglas Lake in Munro Township on the northern tip of Michigan. First built in 1908, the cabins, rustic and durable on the exterior, undergo interior makeovers on a regular basis to keep pace with the ever-changing tastes and requirements of university undergraduates and researchers. As part of the campus of the University of Michigan Biological Station, the 100 modest cabins may soon represent the birthplace of a new generation of stormwater expertise. At the same time, instructors seeking innovative approaches to teaching hope to bring as much enthusiasm and practicality to the students’ learning experience as the young scholars bring to energize campus life.

No Ordinary Classroom
When Tim Veverica, a University of Michigan Professor of chemistry, first met with Matt Claucherty, monitoring and research coordinator for Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, they discovered that they might be thinking about some complementary goals. Veverica was looking for new ideas on how to provide students with introductory general chemistry instruction, with an eye on transforming an often-tedious process of abstraction and rote memorization of hands-on practical activities into an energizing, life-shaping experience. Claucherty needed reliable data to move forward policy and water quality goals for the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council. “Matt and I dreamed up an introductory chemistry class to get students out in the field doing some real chemistry,” says Veverica.

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They hit on the idea to put together an instructional module in which students would develop the required knowledge and skills to perform in a professional contract water quality monitoring laboratory that would provide actual datasets on water quality in the Douglas Lake region. These data could be used to help guide the policy and practices of Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council and other groups interested in the health of the watershed.

At the start of the semester, Matt Claucherty gave a presentation on water quality to the dozen or so students participating in the program. To help stoke their imaginations, he closed by asking a few important questions that Tip of the Mitt had “always wondered” about water quality, but had not yet had the opportunity to explore.

Veverica says the focal point of the class was to help students understand the principles of chemistry while gaining insight into the influence of human activity on water quality. According to Veverica, the first step in evaluating the effects of human activity on a body of water is pinpointing the locations where human impacts may have taken place. He says one of the most reliable markers of human influence on water quality is change in conductivity.

According to Veverica, one of the hallmarks of human activity is salt moving around from place to place. “Specific conductivity is a marker for ions that indicates anthropogenic inputs—meaning chlorides,” he says. We’re all familiar with the social custom of passing the salt around the dinner table so that everybody gets to use some, but humans use a lot more salt than that.”

In the environment, the quantity of salt use has become a concern. Claucherty says one of the questions his organization had was whether treating area roads with salt for deicing and anti-icing had risen to a level of concern.

A key component of the class was teaching students how to detect elevated levels of salt, and for that task, Veverica selected the Hanna HI-8733 Multi-range Conductivity Meter. The meter is waterproof with a built-in temperature sensor and automatic temperature compensation, meaning that samples with fluctuating temperature can be measured.

“It’s a robust compact meter,” says Veverica. The students learned very quickly how to operate it. “The students were completely blank slates in the morning.” He says the class discussed theory and the use of salt as an indicator for other types of pollutants. Chloride ions, for instance, can indicate malfunctioning septic tanks, defective sewer mains, and household practices including vehicle washing and lawn care. Farming and industrial practices can also introduce chlorides, along with a variety of additional contaminants.

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In the past, Tip of the Mitt had performed specific conductivity studies of the watershed. Members had walked the riverfront and mapped all of the outfalls. The students were given the assignment of collecting samples upstream and downstream of each of the targeted outfalls to run comparative analyses to determine whether an outfall might be contributing human-derived inputs that could negatively impact water quality.

“For total conductivity, we had some certified reference materials. Then we had them grab some samples. We had them add a known quantity of salt, demonstrating how the instrument performed. This was a new area for me,” says Veverica, but he and the students quickly became acclimated to the meter’s operational controls.

Once the project got underway, students began to locate areas where elevated levels of salt could be detected. They collected water samples from these sites to return to the lab for analysis. Following strict adherence to EPA guidelines and protocols, they catalogued the samples and performed assays for organic compounds, heavy metals, and other ­possible contaminants.

In the past, Tip of the Mitt had performed specific conductivity studies of the watershed. Members had walked the riverfront and mapped all of the outfalls. The students were given the assignment of collecting samples upstream and downstream of each of the targeted outfalls to run comparative analyses to determine whether an outfall might be contributing human-derived inputs that could negatively impact water quality.

“For total conductivity, we had some certified reference materials. Then we had them grab some samples. We had them add a known quantity of salt, demonstrating how the instrument performed. This was a new area for me,” says Veverica, but he and the students quickly became acclimated to the meter’s operational controls.

Once the project got underway, students began to locate areas where elevated levels of salt could be detected. They collected water samples from these sites to return to the lab for analysis. Following strict adherence to EPA guidelines and protocols, they catalogued the samples and performed assays for organic compounds, heavy metals, and other ­possible contaminants.

Veverica says sampling methodology was also very stringent. “As per EPA guidelines, we collected into precleaned, single-use Restek 21797 sampling vials.”

Although some of the outfalls were rather steep, “Where it was safe to do so, students waded in with acid-washed Fisher Scientific 02896C wide-mouth bottles. For preparation to assay for metals and ions, they had been instructed to rinse them three times and then close the cap with the container still underwater.” Veverica says he selected Fisher Scientific because of its cost effectiveness, “and the polypropylene is easy to clean for reuse.”

Sampling was performed in the first week of May, well after the first thaw.

Credit: Alev Bilginsoy
Volunteers measure streamflow in Soquel Creek.

The study provided some useful insights into how the community was faring in its water quality goals. According to Veverica, “Where BMPs are in place, they appear to be working with a good retention of undesirable contaminants.” He says the students’ work is already yielding professional-quality results. For example, one undocumented discharge was discovered to be contributing pollutants via an outfall that had been previously removed from service and blocked off with riprap. “There was an access point in a park next to it and it had a high specific volatility.” Lab analysis of samples taken there turned up dry cleaning solvent. After a short period of deductive reasoning, says Veverica, a possible source was identified: it was commonly known that there was only one dry cleaner in town. As a result of the information revealed by the study, the municipality and the cleaning business owners have begun consulting on a way to resolve the situation.

Tip of the Mitt was satisfied as well. Taking detailed samples had been a “wish list item” for the organization, but it did not have the manpower or the funds to do it.

Veverica says the University of Michigan administration was happy with the program, and he is working on revising it to introduce again in 2018.

Managing Negative Impacts
If the Earth were the size of a basketball, all the water on the planet could be held inside a ping-pong ball. That water is spread as a thin film rather unevenly across the Earth’s surface, according to David Gallo, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a co-leader of the 2012 quest to map the wreckage of the Titanic. Of the Earth’s water, only 3% is freshwater, and two-thirds of it is locked up in ice. Yet, just as the Titanic managed to run into trouble in the middle of a huge ocean on an early spring evening, stormwater storage devices somehow manage to overflow with the meager supply of water provided by intermittent rains. Nonetheless, these overflows—however unlikely—can lead to negative impacts on the increasingly precious freshwater resource.

Laura Toran, a professor of environmental studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, says there is a growing recognition that overland flow is an issue in driving contaminants or pollutants into waterways. She acknowledges that controlling such flows to allow percolation to groundwater can serve to mitigate the impacts of impervious surfaces and contaminated overland expanses, but she says it is difficult to evaluate where and when stormwater control devices will overflow or what specifically can be done in a watershed to ensure that they don’t. Although there is a wide variety of BMPs installed throughout the US to control the release of large volumes of stormwater, says Toran. “The regulations require that you put these things in, but they don’t guarantee that they’re going to work.”

According to Toran, understanding individual overland flow patterns and their effects on water quality usually requires intensive study through water budgeting monitoring. That entails an accounting of all of the water that flows in and out of a watershed—tracking where it comes from and where it goes, what pollutants it may have picked up along the way, and what condition it was in when it arrived. “That’s expensive,” she notes.

Finding the skilled personnel and funding to meet the requirements of such a large-scale water quality monitoring project would present a significant challenge for any cash-strapped stormwater program with limited resources. Toran saw an opportunity to demonstrate that information of a similar utility could be generated by a comprehensive water budget study obtained at a much lower expense.

She devised a study protocol that involved visually monitoring BMPs during rainstorms to see which of them overflowed with considerable frequency. “I went out in the rain with a water logger and checked on how often local stormwater control management BMPs overflowed.” She selected those that overflowed with the highest frequency and included them in a study to evaluate the volume of water they were contributing to overland flow.

Keeping It Level
“The volume of water is very important because it is the volume that causes erosion. Stormwater also carries contaminants with it. One of the big ones is salt, and that is all year and not just in the winter. It gets into the soil, and every time it rains, the road salt moves into the streams,” she says.

Toran says that there are at least two ways to evaluate where the contaminants might be moving. One is by directly monitoring and measuring salinity. The cheaper way is by monitoring water levels with the assumption that whenever water is moving, it’s taking contaminants that might be present with it. It is also less expensive to monitor water levels than to monitor salinity. “Water level loggers cost $300, while salinity loggers start in the $700 price range,” she says.

Her goal is not to eliminate detailed study, but to come up with a more reliable way to target that detailed study toward problem areas.

Toran devised a study with a simple objective: to determine the degree to which a variety of different types of stormwater retention BMPs situated in the vicinity of campus were actually performing their designed function of detaining the specified volume of water for the specified duration. She selected Onset HOBO data loggers to capture data for overflow frequency for three detention basins and a blue roof included in the study.

“I was looking for a data logger that was easy to maintain and that had a reasonable price,” she says. Working in a university setting meant that she also had to navigate the fluid staffing environment. “Students tend to graduate before the projects get finished,” she notes. In this situation, having access to an instrument that operates on its own can be very beneficial. “I own 50 of them; I have a lot of monitoring going on. They’re in streams. There are 10 on campus and 15 or 20 on one stream in particular. I use them for a lot of different things. Here’s the nice thing about loggers: they sit out there collecting data all day long. I have them set on a 15-minute interval. They’re out there collecting data every time it rains.”

She says another attractive feature is the HOBO logger’s user-friendly software. “The software is pretty easy to understand. I’ve taught it to a number of people. It can store information in Excel spreadsheets.” Although the units provide the capability of automatically uploading data, she prefers to access the data manually.

Identical Loggers, Complementary Data
Her protocol calls for two loggers at each basin, one to serve as a barometric logger and the other to collect water level data. She says both are required because barometric pressure affects the volume of water outflow for any specific water level reading. Just as with a fire hose, she explains, when water in a detention pond overflow is under higher pressure, it will flow out at a faster rate. “When you’re looking at barometric pressure, it varies throughout the day. And when storms come through, it varies a lot. Well, I’m looking at storm data, so I need to subtract out what’s happening in the air in order to see what’s happening in the water.” She says that the two devices can be set to record water level and pressure at a range of intervals specified by the user while the software automatically makes corrections for flow rates based on the barometric pressure, taking the tedium of making innumerable mathematical calculations off the researcher. It’s a simple setup. “It’s the exact same piece of equipment—one is in the air and one is in the water.”

The HOBO loggers have proven to be durable. “I leave them out all the time. I know you’re not supposed to freeze them, but that one on the roof—the student went out one day and it was frozen. I said, ‘Oh no, pull it in and we’ll recalibrate it,’ but it was fine. It worked fine. They’re pretty robust. I’m impressed.”

She also proved that valuable and practical information could be obtained through a much simpler study than a water budget protocol. The logger on the roof eventually revealed that the blue roof had a minor malfunction that allowed water to drain too quickly, negating its storage function. Toran was able to detect the malfunction and correct it. “As soon as the rain stopped, the water drained. The blue roof was supposed to store the water, but it wasn’t. So we looked at the overflow pipe and saw that the hole was too big. We made it smaller and got it to drain more slowly. The monitoring was the cost of the water level loggers, and the fix cost me about five bucks.”

Instant Readings Prompt Solutions
Jennifer Ponchak owns the Ohio water quality management firm Follow the River Environmental. She says the company works closely with the Franklin County Engineer’s Office to help evaluate the strength, integrity, and effectiveness of construction-site stormwater control measures to help meet National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) requirements.

She says the County “wanted to have something to show how the contractors doing construction projects for the county are impacting the stream, and how the County can work backward to find the source of a problem,” and if necessary, bring it to the contractor’s attention for corrective action.

Workloads have been consistent for the seven years that Follow the River has been performing this task for the county. “We have two sites we’re monitoring right now, but on a regular basis, we have up to five sites to monitor from spring through fall,” she says. “We’re doing the same parameters each week over the course of every project.”

For this task, Ponchak appreciates the portability and versatility provided by the Horiba U52 multiparameter water quality meter. “The Horiba gives us an instant reading on what we’re looking at and helps us with what we can’t see with our eyes.” Among the parameters, the meter measures salinity, pH, conductivity, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, total dissolved solids, and temperature.

“Typically, we’d want to sample immediately upstream of the project site, but downstream of the nearest pipe.” Although the county does have comprehensive mapping, Ponchak says it’s just as easy to have technicians walk the streambank and simply look to see where the outfalls are located upstream of any projects that are being monitored.

Using handheld meters has the added benefit of putting eyes and ears in the field. “If my technician sees a sediment plume, he’ll notify the county rather than waiting a week for data to come back from the lab,” she explains.

“The County takes these projects seriously and acts quickly. If there are problems, they are addressed quickly,” she adds. She says many of the biggest problems occur during the dewatering stages of a project. Pump-arounds in dry conditions can also be a challenge. However, she says there has been improvement in water quality over the seven years that the regulations have been in place.

People-Powered Monitoring
Although monitoring can be used to help facilitate immediate action, in other cases, the data collected help build widespread, long-term understanding. Alev Bilginsoy, river scientist with the Coastal Watershed Council (CWC) in Santa Cruz, CA, says one component of her duties is to lead watershed monitoring projects based on government contracts and grants. Another responsibility is to provide the community with watershed education, connecting people to spaces and stewardship opportunities with a mission to preserve the coastal watershed.

The CWC covers the area from the Santa Cruz Mountains to Monterey Bay, looking at both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The organization’s monitoring program, called Urban Watch, was first established in 1997 as a joint project to monitor surface water and stormwater outfalls, with a goal of understanding the connection between water quality and human activity. “We have been monitoring seven sites since 2000. It helps meet the NPDES permit for the city of Capitola, and it provides information and watershed education to the public and teaches about how to address water quality.” (For more on the CWC’s activities, see the article in our July/August 2017 issue, “A Water Quality Working Group.”)

One of the major concerns in the region is coliform bacteria levels in Soquel Creek. From May through September, there is virtually no precipitation, she says, “so drains dry up, but you can still get sewer mains that break or car washing or other activities.

“During monitoring events, we visit storm drain outfalls to look for correlation between what happens at the outfall during first flush and water quality.” Key tools include Hach 2100Q Handheld Turbidity Meters and YSI Multiparameter Meters.

“The reach that we monitor is highly urbanized, although some efforts have begun to restore the riparian corridor. The program monitors four stream locations to look at the correlation between what comes out of the storm outfall during dry season and the water quality.”

Volunteers visit each site 15 times per year and samples are collected to test for E. coli and copper, with an emphasis on collecting samples from areas that show evidence of elevated conductivity.

The goals are twofold: to provide accurate data and to cultivate citizen, science, and community involvement. As a result, says Bilginsoy, “We pick equipment to make the protocol as accessible as possible.”

“My experience with YSI is that it takes some time to train people in the calibration, but we build that time into the training program for monitoring teams.” On the other hand, she notes, the sonde itself is a good education tool, once in the hands of the volunteers. “In other programs, we have had to use several pieces of equipment to monitor the various parameters.” She says the complex learning curve and the very act of juggling and lugging around a slew of instruments detracted from the experience. Using a mutliparameter instrument minimizes the juggling and frees up volunteers to pay attention to what matters for water quality. “We can have the conversation about what dissolved oxygen means and what the conductivity readings mean.”

She adds, “What is unique and exciting about what we are doing is we want to do it long-term and get good data and engage the communities. Writing a report in-house doesn’t have the same impact as getting out there and doing it.”

It’s also important that volunteers want to continue with the program. “When people use the waders, they enjoy it. You can feel the cold water enveloping you, and that’s exciting to people. My favorite is being able to stand in the stream and feel immersed.”


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