The U.S. Geological Survey and Its W. V. Shenandoah River Sampling Program

Or... What are those guys doing on the Shenandoah River Bridge?


What started out as curiosity has become a pretty neat account of the goings-on we see occasionally on the Old Rt 9 (now Rt 115) Shenandoah River bridge. We had stopped by a few weeks ago in the midst of a Spring shower to ask about the activities that seemed to be about measurements of our river. We posted a short blurb on the forum HERE that provided a brief explanation.

We certainly can't promise anything much more in depth in this short article, and it might raise more questions than answers. We'll add and clarify as more information becomes available. This poor soul has been out of the chemistry lab for some time and frankly isn't close to being an expert.


During that earlier visit, We inquired if we could stop by the next time the crew was sampling and find out more about the process. The answer was an enthusiastic, "Yes!" Thus, on May 16th we were faced with this view from the just above Bloomery Road. The crew can be seen in the far, far distance. The equipment used is more easily moved downhill so the work commenced on the east side of the bridge.


We'll Introduce the two members of the USGS crew, Doug Chambers in the jungle style hat is a Water Quality Specialist with the USGC. He hails from Charleston. Brock Markwell in the ballcap is an Environmental Technician with the WV Department of Agriculture. His office is in Moorefield. It's common practice for State agencies to assist the USGS. And the sampling protocols are much easier to follow with a team of at least two persons.


Brock helps pose this trophy specimen. Actually this apparatus is known as an isokinetic sampling device. It's used to collect water to be analyzed for physical and chemical values including sediment, various nitrogen compounds, phosphorus and such. A detailed description of how it is deployed and samples collected can be found HERE.

That is likely TMI, but essentially up to 10 points spaced across the river are sampled. The device is lowered and raised at a steady rate from the riverbed to the surface, allowing the sample to enter a container from the entire water column of the river. The samples from the different sampling sites are then combined to get a representative "slice" of the river in a moment in time.


Brock demonstrates how the "snout" fits into the "body". The device is constructed of cast aluminum and weighs about 35 lbs. For more rapid flows heavier samplers, some made of brass weighing twice as much, are deployed. Either makes for a heavy workout, raising a lowering the apparatus. Collecting consistent samples requires some deft control of the crank.


The device is prepared to be lowered. Doug mans the crank while Brock carefully gauges its progress downward toward the water's surface. To maintain the necessary consistency, it has to just barely touch the surface before being lowered and raised while the sample container fills. This operation is performed at 10 locations across the Shenandoah (measured by the marks in the bridge's edge wall).


The sampler descends toward the river. Across the Shenandoah water depth varies significantly, as one would expect. Doug, operating the crank, can feel the change in tension when it touches bottom and has to immediately begin to raise it back up through the water column.


Seen just breaking the surface of the water after its descent, you can observe that its design allows for orientation parallel to the direction of flow. This is important in the shallower areas where currents can be almost perpendicular to the riverbank.


The contents of the "snout" are being added to the other collections to be mixed for the final representative sample. This completes the first phase of the process.

We should mention that traffic on the bridge was, to say the least, unnerving. it's difficult to imagine how intimidating it would have felt prior to the opening of the new bridge to the north.


The second part of the process involves determining ambient water quality data, in other words, the conditions present in the water at the time the samples were collected. Those who have been taking the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition's training to collect samples will be familiar with checking the pH (acidity or alkalinity) and temperature of the stream or river.


The surveyors are using the device shown above (a YSI model 6820 V2-2 compact sonde for field sampling) to check pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity and more. It is lowered by hand and allowed to adjust to its surroundings in the water before taking measurements.


This view shows the various testing ports without their protective shield.


Data are received by this handheld display device and stored to be uploaded to a PC later.


This photo is from our earlier contact with the USGS crew. Mike Ong with the WV Department of Environmental Protection and Katherine Paybins with the USGS stand by the USGS' handy mobile unit.


The truck's body contains a mini-laboratory for sample preparation and management.


Brock is at the ready to prepare the materials for shipment via Fed Ex to Colorado for examination. And that will complete the third and final phase of the survey process.

This short account is meant to satisfy curiosity and not to impart any detailed scientific information. Mr. Chambers indicated he may be able to send more information soon. In the interim, We can point readers to the USGS Surface-Water Data for West Virginia which is packed with information and data though to say that website is difficult to navigate would be a substantial understatement.

We would welcome being advised of any errors, omissions and would gratefully accept additional information.

We all live downstream.
Enjoy our waters.