Testing the Blue Ridge's streams and the Shenandoah's waters...

The Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition (BRWC) has undertaken an ambitious project to collect empirical data about our Mountain's streams and Jefferson County's portion of the Shenandoah River's contributions of various chemical and physical components to the Chesapeake bay. Presently, the only data available is estimated and based on computer generated models.

Perhaps the best way to introduce the program would be with the able assistance of the BRWC's present chairperson and the technical expertise of the Downstream Project:

The truth lies in the data….

In 2008, several community meetings were held on the Blue Ridge of Jefferson County to help create a vision of mountain communities in years to come. The meetings were well attended by approximately 350 mountain residents.

With the new Chesapeake Bay mandates looming in the background, a loud consensus was heard from the meetings, “what is in the Shenandoah? And did we put it there?” Mountain community members are not known for agreeing on much, but this theme was heard throughout the community meetings.

As a result of the meetings a “Vision of the Blue Ridge” was created with help from Downstream Strategies of Morgantown, WV. Many members of the community board that helped facilitate the meetings decided to join together in the name of improving water quality on the Blue Ridge Mountain, and the Chesapeake Bay downstream. In April 2011, the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition (BRWC) was formed to begin the arduous process of fixing many 50 year old problems on the Blue Ridge communities that affect water quality in our watersheds.

A Governor’s Community Participation Grant was awarded to the BRWC with the help of Senator John Unger. With the grant, continuous turbidity meters were purchased to help with state of the art water monitoring of the Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge watersheds. The meters take continuous readings every 3 seconds with the help of laser. These readings measure the turbidity or amount of sediment in our sampling locations.

The Jefferson County Commission voted to match and surpass the $10,000 Governor’s grant to allow the BRWC to test 6 sites on the Blue Ridge mountain, and 3 sites on the Shenandoah River with training and analysis by the laboratory at Shenandoah University established and funded by the Friends of the Shenandoah River. The Friend’s lab and its protocol, run by Karen Anderson, is approved by the EPA making the BRWC’s results very valuable. The $15,000 match supplied by the County Commission will cover the training of water monitors, and the lab fees for one year. The monitoring project is funded through March of 2014.

Training has begun for the BRWC and some friends living on the Elk’s Run in Jefferson County. Volunteers will have training completed and will begin sampling May 2013. With the data gained from the turbidity meters in conjunction with water level readings from the USGS gauge at Millville, the actual TMDL will be calculated making Jefferson County one of the few watersheds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that has an actual TMDL model based on fact, and not computer generated models.

Our neighbors spoke, and the BRWC responded. As data begins to pour in the BRWC plans on using this data to address issues indicated by our results. Our success will be easily monitored in our data for years to come. The BRWC will actively seek funding to keep this important program ongoing in Jefferson County.

(Ronda Nickey Lehman, Chair of the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition, contributed to this post. Video was produced by The Downstream Project.)

Getting Started

The prologue has done an excellent of setting the stage for some more "show and tell". We can start with a view of the BRWC meeting to discuss how to put the plan into action


The group, with several guests, convened in it corporate headquarters, the Mountain Community Center in early January.


Later in January our group visited the Friends of the Shenandoah River's laboratory at Shenandoah University where Karen Andersen, the lab's director, introduces members of the BRWC to the facility.


Karen explains some of the equipment used in analyses. Much of the state of the art instrumentation is automated.


However, the human touch is still an integral part of the process and we see Molly Smith, the lab's technician, working her magic.


An image from an earlier visit (in 2011) gives a wider view of the lab's configuration. Soon we hope to have more up-to-date views of the BRWC's samples being analyzed.


In the prologue it was mentioned that the FOSR laboratory has received the blessing of the EPA, no mean feat. Proper analyses require strict adherence to uniformity in site locations, sampling techniques and laboratory procedures. We'll address the sampling sites and the rationale behind their locations later. Let's talk about the training provided volunteers first.

In the Classroom


It was back to school time in the Mountain Community Center's great room. Karen leads the group thru the process of calibrating their testing instruments. The process was being recorded by the Downstream Project.


The morning group listens intently to Karen's explanations.


This may look to some as rocket science, but it isn't. It's kinda what I would call "cookbook chemistry". Karen has written step by step instructions on how to calibrate the meter so that it will record reliable data on pH (whether the the sample is acidic or basic) and dissolved oxygen (the amount of oxygen in the water available for life processes). Follow the steps and, voilà, you've been calibrated!


Here the instrument case has been opened and the meter hooked up for calibration.


The evening session mirrored the earlier one. We had an SRO crowd (some of our tardy classmates hadn't arrived when the pic was taken) We'd be remiss if we didn't mention Molly Smith (in the background), Karen's able lab assistant. And the BRWC would like to thank the MCC for hosting the training.

In the Field


Karen Andersen, aided by Molly Smith, gives some preliminary pointers to the group. The site above is not one that will be monitored but was chosen so that there would be ample room for the trainees to participate in the collection process In addition to the Blue Ridge group, members of the Elks Run Watershed organization were receiving training too.


Karen continues to brief the volunteers about sampling techniques. It's critical that the specimens be collected in the same manner and as close to the same spot as possible to obtain statistically valid data. Since minimizing contamination is a necessity, sometimes you just have to wade into the stream. Note that testing and sampling are performed upstream from where she is standing.


In addition to Phosphates, Nitrogen and Coliform, Karen reminds the volunteers that before collecting the samples, Dissolved Oxygen and pH are recorded. You may recall that in Phase I of the training the group was instructed on how to calibrate the the meters before each outing to ensure accuracy.


Finally, it's time for our intrepid volunteers wade into action (under the watchful eyes of Ms. Andersen).


The BRWC would like to acknowledge the ongoing support of the Downstream Project which has been contributing some REAL professional coverage of the sampling project's activities as evidenced by the videocam on its tripod.

We want to emphasize that this will be an ongoing project and more volunteers are welcome to climb aboard. Youngsters are encouraged to accompany adults.

Final Exam

Of the three phases of training, the classroom and field training have been completed. Presently (June 2013) the third and final hurdle, a test in the field, is currently in progress. Photos will follow soon-stay tuned.

Sampling Sites

As promised, here's how & why we've selected the sites that will be monitored.

At present, the BRWC has selected three places on the mainstem of the Shenandoah River from which to collect samples for chemical and bacteriological examination. On the map below theose are designated M1, M2 & M3. We hope to be able to measure values of the water entering , at midpoint and leaving Jefferson County.

Additionally, four locations have been chosen to sample the mouths of mountain streams just prior to their emptying into the river. These streams are spaced along the east side of the river and drain some of the areas of densest development. They are designated T1, T2, T3 & T4.

All the point of collection were also chosen for their relative ease of accessibility at all times during the year. The sampling program continues year-round.

Two of the the sampling sites have been made available to the Elks Run Watershed, a group in the process of organizing. Elks Run provided the drinking water for Harpers Ferry and Bolivar and the thousands of tourists visiting the National park. It has been designated "impaired" by the WV Department of Environmental Protection due to high levels of fecal coliform organisms.

The map showing the BRWC's sampling sites is shown below. Be sure to click the pic for a larger view.

For What Are We Testing?

The parameter or values for which we're sampling include