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WVU-led collaborative effort aims to improve water quality by boosting support for watershed groups

A team samples a passive acid mine drainage treatment system to evaluate its performance.

A team including (from left) WVU graduate student Joe Kingsbury, WVWRI Water Resources Specialist Rachel Spirnak, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Northern Watershed Basin Coordinator Martin Christ and Kevin Campbell, of the Buckhannon River Watershed Association, samples a passive acid mine drainage treatment system to evaluate its performance. (Photo courtesy of WVWRI.)

West Virginia University and regional partners are boosting support for watershed groups working to improve water quality in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

WVU’s West Virginia Water Research Institute (WVWRI) recently received a one-year $350,000 grant from the Pittsburgh-based Colcom Foundation, in partnership with the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds (FPW), to support WVWRI’s comprehensive long-term water quality monitoring and reporting program, called Three Rivers QUEST (3RQ).

A portion of the funds will be used to establish a new 3RQ collaborative effort, called Generating Awareness for Project Success (GAPS). The grant will provide GAPS assistance to aid four to six regional watershed groups in gathering the water quality data necessary to secure federal funding for projects that address water pollution.

“In order to remediate their streams, watershed groups need to characterize their problem discharges and then identify where and what kind of treatment is needed to have the most success. GAPS does that so they can apply for remedial funding,” WVWRI Water Resources Specialist Rachel Spirnak said.

Watershed groups interested in GAPS assistance can learn more during online information sessions scheduled Sept. 13 and Sept. 20. Advance registration is required at

The 3RQ program grew out of water quality monitoring work launched by WVWRI in 2008, after rising salt levels in the Monongahela River threatened drinking water supplies. WVWRI engaged key stakeholders to launch a water quality monitoring program that identified the sources and implemented an inexpensive solution that, since 2010, has controlled salts to below drinking water levels from Morgantown to Pittsburgh. 

As WVWRI built relationships with watershed groups throughout the Mon River basin, the Colcom Foundation provided funding to continue monitoring of the Mon River, major tributaries and headwater streams. The program expanded to 3RQ upon adding the Allegheny and Ohio rivers to its monitoring efforts. In partnership with Duquesne, Wheeling Jesuit and later West Liberty universities, 3RQ ensures that any new problems are identified and resolved.

“Our goal with the latest funding we received is to continue our routine preventative and evaluative monitoring on the three rivers, so we’re out there monthly looking at total dissolved solids and metals to ensure that our total discharge management plan is working correctly and we’re able to keep an eye on any spikes that might occur,” WVWRI Associate Director Melissa O’Neal said. “And we’ll be able to provide some assistance to watershed groups that need help in collecting the data they need to go after remediation funding.”

WVWRI Water Resources Data Technician Eliza Siefert and WVU undergraduate student Jacob Morris monitor water quality in an acid mine drainage-impacted stream, a candidate for a passive treatment system. (Photo courtesy of WVWRI.)

WVWRI Water Resources Data Technician Eliza Siefert and WVU undergraduate student Jacob Morris monitor water quality in an acid mine drainage-impacted stream, a candidate for a passive treatment system. (Photo courtesy of WVWRI.)

O’Neal said the Colcom Foundation has provided more than $3 million since 2010 to support water quality monitoring work led by WVWRI. The latest grant was awarded through the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, which supports efforts to protect streams, clean up pollution and restore degraded wildlife habitat in Pennsylvania.

“Consistently limited funding for technical assistance has affected the ability of watershed groups – and agencies, to a degree – to design and implement multi-year projects,” Branden S. Diehl, CEO of Earth Wise Consulting and project and grant consultant for FPW, said. “With the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (BIIJA), both West Virginia and Pennsylvania will receive historic levels of funding for mine reclamation work – $140 million and $245 million, respectively. Watershed organizations and our grantees are excited about the opportunities these funds create and are hopeful that GAPS and other public-private partnerships provide the necessary technical assistance to assist both states in addressing their environmental legacies.”

O’Neal said WVWRI regularly assists watershed groups pursuing funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for remediation projects, but those organizations often lack the data necessary for a strong proposal due to limited funding and resources. In partnership with the Foundation for PA Watersheds, the GAPS initiative will provide funding for sampling, analysis and expertise to help those groups achieve success.

Cumulatively, the remediation projects have the potential to make a significant difference on water quality downstream.

“Our pre- and post-construction data allow watershed groups and state agencies to design and build remediation projects that have major impacts,” O’Neal said. “For example, all of the work that has been done in the Cheat watershed has had significant impacts on the Cheat River and Cheat Lake. They are productive fisheries now thanks to these small to large remediation projects. So, we’re able to evaluate the effects of existing projects and determine what, if anything, is needed to meet water quality goals. Ultimately, the goal is to improve the lives of the people in these rural communities, and it all starts with monitoring.”

Grant funding to support the WVWRI is awarded through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University and its affiliated entities.

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