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Water-quality project widens

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 11:46 p.m.
The Allegheny River as it flows through Harmarville and Oakmont on Saturday, December 29, 2012. A $700,000 grant from the Colcom Foundation in Pittsburgh is allowing a water quality project that examined the health of the Monongahela River Basin to expand to the Allegheny and Ohio rivers. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The Allegheny River as it flows through Harmarville and Oakmont on Saturday, December 29, 2012. A $700,000 grant from the Colcom Foundation in Pittsburgh is allowing a water quality project that examined the health of the Monongahela River Basin to expand to the Allegheny and Ohio rivers. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

Bald eagles soaring above the Allegheny River watershed are an indication of cleaner water but a new study may determine just how clean it is.

The majestic birds, once considered rare in the region, are more numerous and visible at least in part because the fish they feed on are more plentiful. That is a direct link to cleaner waterways locally, which is the focus of the Three Rivers QUEST project.

The project started out as a study of the Monongahela River Basin in 2009. But now, a $700,000 grant from the Colcom Foundation in Pittsburgh is allowing the water quality project to expand to the Allegheny and Ohio rivers.

The project is sponsored by the Quality Useful Environmental Study Teams (QUEST) of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University.

Field work begins in January to monitor the water quality of rivers, paying particular attention to the effects of industrial discharges, in eight counties: Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Westmoreland, Indiana, Jefferson, Clarion and Cambria.

A long-range study

“This study provides for a large, very long-term look at a watershed,” said Melissa O'Neal, QUEST program manager.

The yearlong project covers over 30,000 square miles of the Upper Ohio River Basin with 54 sampling locations, along the main stem and at the mouths of major tributaries to the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio rivers.

“Geographically we're covering a large area and looking at total dissolved solids and using that as an indicator and we are trying to see the influence of treated and untreated mine drainage,” she said.

The study will provide a baseline, testing for a number of water quality indicators including dissolved oxygen, temperature, acidity, conductivity, fluoride, bromides, sulfate, nitrate, and phosphate as well as metals.

Duquesne University, which received a $100,000 grant for the project, will monitor water quality of the lower Allegheny River and its key tributaries; the Iron Furnace Chapter of Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited will test water at sites as far north as the Allegheny National Forest, and Wheeling Jesuit University will monitor the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to near Parkersburg, W.Va.

Getting a little help

The Three Rivers QUEST project joins a host of other local water quality studies from the state Fish and Boat Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and others.

“The important thing is that the study will be consistent with taking biweekly grab samples for a year, hopefully longer” said O'Neal.

That's where local watershed and environmental groups come in.

Three Rivers QUEST will train local environmental groups to sample water quality so results will be consistent and fit with the overall study for a length of time.

This research effort will join a number of other studies on area rivers.

This year, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission was out electro-shocking fish for surveys and a snapshot of water quality.

As the Allegheny River is home to the most species in the state, the number of non-game fish have been increasing in the lower Allegheny in last 15 years, according to Fish Commission reports.

Other studies on local waterways by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy recently turned up harbingers of quality water — native brook trout and wild brown trout — in five streams in the Little Mahoning Creek watershed in Indiana County.

Plagued by pollution

For Stan Kabala, associate director of Duquesne University's Center for Environmental Research and Education, the study will track the presence of new and persistent contaminants.

Historically, local rivers have been plagued by industrial releases, sewage and abandoned mine drainage.

He likes to quote an engineer who in 1912 said: “The natural function of a river is to carry waste to the seas.”

Disagreeing with that philosophy, Kabala said, “We've made real progress in recent decades on addressing causes of lower water quality in the Allegheny and now we are potentially on the verge of a new set of new threats from industry such as Marcellus shale drilling and sewage.”

Kabala also points out the presence of non-point sources of water pollution such as fertilizers from farms, herbicides from golf courses and run-off from highways and parking lots.

The study will be an opportunity to develop a baseline of water quality in the wake of potential pollution from Marcellus shale fracking.

“We're in Marcellus shale country and we don't' have a good base line,” he said.

Study scientists plan to share their results with the public, government agencies and other interested groups.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

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