Testing the Waters

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Georgia has 71,000 miles of rivers and lakes, and each one is feeling the strain. This has resulted in a laundry list of complaints and inconveniences for most people, and drought stresses have only exacerbated tensions caused by steadily increasing usage demands on water resources in the Southeast.

Georgia has 71,000 miles of rivers and lakes, and each one is feeling the strain. This has resulted in a laundry list of complaints and inconveniences for most people, and drought stresses have only exacerbated tensions caused by steadily increasing usage demands on water resources in the Southeast.For UWG’s Center for Water Resources, the dire situation is providing a way to study water sources from a different perspective. Since 1999, the organization has been measuring water quality and flow in rivers, streams and reservoirs in several west Georgia counties, including Carroll, Haralson, Heard and Douglas, but it has had few chances to collect that data in the middle of a dry spell.

The center, a unit within the Department of Geosciences directed by Dr. Randy Kath, professor of geology, collects data from several rivers and streams throughout west Georgia. The group of faculty, staff and student volunteers gathers this information whether or not classes are in session.

Because of the drought, this year’s data is proving to be more beneficial than usual.

“This is the first time there have been drought conditions since I’ve started measuring,” said Ellie Busse, a junior from Alpharetta. “Of course the drought is terrible, but it’s exciting to compare this year’s data to years with normal rainfall.”

According to Dennis Zenefski, a Carrollton junior, the data gathered during this dry period can be used later for predictions and prevention models. In other words, it offers a method of preparing for the state’s next drought.

“When we compare this data to past years, it shows which sources give us the most water,” Zenefski said. “That’s a good thing to know when some of those rivers and streams start drying up.”

The way team members — typically professors, instructors and students — collect data is an interesting combination of computerized measuring and getting their feet wet. Once they find a suitable spot in the water source, they measure the distance from one bank to the other. That involves throwing on a pair of waders and trekking across the uneven ground beneath the water’s surface.

After successfully making it across, a team member uses a flow meter to measure 10 spots equally spaced along the width of the stream to determine the water’s velocity. The number from the flow meter, along with the width and area measurements, is plugged into an equation to determine the volume of water actually present in the source.

“Minimum flow levels are required for maintaining habitat, drinking water, generation of electricity and cooling water for nuclear- and coal-driven power plants,” said Dr. Curtis Hollabaugh, chair of the Geosciences Department and methods development coordinator for the center. “Because there is a need for regional drinking water reservoirs, our flow data measured during summer and fall 2007 may be useful for siting future drinking water reservoirs.”

While the slow-but-steady process of measuring flow is taking place, another team member collects water samples to test other factors. These often include such properties as pH levels, temperature, quality and turbidity, or the amount of sediment found in the source. Turbidity plays an important role in the quality-testing process. The higher the turbidity level, the higher the sediment level, which deteriorates water quality.

Hollabaugh said accurate studies can determine the kinds of nutrients the water contains and the quantity of bacteria present.

Data collected by the center is submitted to clients for whom it does long-term monitoring, as well as in an annual report to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Data collected by students working on projects with faculty mentors is analyzed by the students and submitted as abstracts to such organizations as the Georgia Academy of Science and the Geological Society of America. When possible, students also make research presentations at such groups’ annual meetings.

To assist in tracking patterns, the center utilizes the UWG Water Research Station, an on-campus laboratory that monitors the water conditions throughout more than 50 acres on the northern edge of the university campus.

The station is used for classes and independent research projects, as well as basic research. Randa Harris, an instructor and lab supervisor, said it provides access to the Little Tallapoosa River and several creeks that drain the campus.

“The station has a sampling dock, a shallow well field and a deep research well,” said Harris. “It’s in a perfect location for student research projects and intense water-quality sampling. It also plays an integral part in allowing us to develop new monitoring methods.”

Water quality and watershed assessment are also a focus of the Upper Tallapoosa Watershed Group, a non-profit organization also based in the Department of Geosciences. The work of such groups and the search for ground water directed by Kath (see related story on page 4) are among many ways the university is helping to ensure that Georgia will have clean, plentiful water sources for years to come.

“Georgia is among the top 10 fastest-growing states in the nation,” Hollabaugh said. “The population of the metro-Atlanta area is expected to grow by 2.3 million people in the next 25 years. Our water supply, and the quality of that water, has to be protected for residential use, economic development, agriculture and recreation.”