Playing an increasingly important role in documenting water quality in the region is a device with an unusual name. Multi-probe datasondes (sondes) are high-tech monitoring devices placed in regional waterways, which will substantially enhance data gathered in the two-decade Scenic Rivers Monitoring Program (SRMP) detailed in last week’s issue of The River Reporter.
The SRMP represents a long-standing partnership between the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and the National Park Service (NPS). Use of the specialized sondes brings a third partner, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), into the equation. The USGS/NPS Water Quality Partnership Project co-locates the monitors, data platforms and satellite transmitters with existing USGS gages.
While nine datasondes are already in place, four new continuous water-quality monitors will be installed at three Delaware River sites (Lordville, NY; Barryville, NY; Montague, NJ) and one Lackawaxen River site (Rowland, PA), to perform real-time monitoring of key water quality parameters including dissolved oxygen, pH, specific conductance, temperature and turbidity.
This will enable the NPS to better document diurnal and seasonal fluctuations in water quality, improve the definitions of existing water quality (EWQ) upon which current Special Protection Waters (SPW) standards are based, establish long-term monitoring to assess “measureable change,” provide data and a water-quality record capable of documenting changes that may be attributable to specific activities, reduce the cost of data collection through the utilization of advanced technologies and form collaborative partnerships to improve monitoring capabilities.
NPS national resource specialist Don Hamilton said the sondes will reveal more than the data obtained from bi-weekly grab samples that are limited by seasonal access. The study will also aid in the development of regulatory standards for tributaries and provide a tool for the DRBC to act upon decisions that impact water quality.
Development of the Marcellus Shale in the Delaware River Basin is a key motivator for the monitoring, as specified in the proposal for the four units to be installed in spring 2012:
“The Delaware River Basin is at the intersection of the Marcellus Shale formation, the largest (65,000 square miles) and most actively developing natural gas field in the U.S., and the Delaware River, the longest reach of Special Protection Waters (197 miles) in the country. As this development moves rapidly into the basin (36% underlain by Marcellus Shale), it brings an industrial activity with a host of potential environmental consequences.
“Effects may include surface and groundwater contamination related to drilling and disposal of drilling fluids, air quality degradation, soil contamination, compaction, and increased erosion and sedimentation due to large-scale development and changes in land use, which may result in additional water quality impacts.”
The agencies are hoping for improved assessment of core water-quality parameters, a better understanding of existing water quality and ecosystem health, a greater ability to detect incidents that impair water quality and natural resources and an improved capacity to implement timely responses and management actions that will resolve issues or threats.
The multi-probe datasondes are sensitive enough to detect subtle changes on a frequency that will allow baseline conditions, and any deviations from them, to be documented throughout the year, according to the NPS.
“We are anticipating industrial resource development on a scale that this basin hasn’t seen before, with spacing units for well pads as small as every 80 acres,” the grant indicates. “Large scale, widespread changes in land use and land cover, as is expected with the construction of well pads, service roads, and pipeline infrastructure associated with natural gas development, can be expected to lead to an increase in impervious surfaces in the watershed, increased runoff, erosion and sedimentation.
“There is always the more immediate threat of spills and releases into the environment of produced water, fracking fluids and brines associated with this development, and their contamination of surface and groundwater, impacting water quality and natural resources.”
Ultimately, the project will provide the data for better definitions of existing water quality, better resolution of trends in water quality and more timely documentation of events that result in degraded water quality and habitat. This may, in turn, enable management actions that halt or influence the termination of harmful practices.
Contact Hamilton at 570/729-7842 or firstname.lastname@example.org  for more information.
[The River Reporter looks at what’s being done and by whom in this ongoing series focused on water quality initiatives in the region. See http://www.riverreporteronline.com/news/14/2011/09/06/watching-water-qua...  for the first installment.]