Carnegie Mellon University
November 12, 2012

2012 Conference Focuses on the State of the Monongahela River

2012 Conference Focuses on the State of the Monongahela River

The Monongahalea is one of the world's few major rivers that flow from south to north.The Monongahalea is one of the world's few major rivers that flow from south to north.

On November 8, engineers, biologists, and community members gathered at WaterQUEST’s third annual State of the Monongahela conference at Carnegie Mellon to discuss the current conditions in the Monongahela River. The conference featured a series of presentations on the latest water quality data, watershed health, and developments in cooperative management of the river. 

The Monongahela River, commonly known as the “Mon,” stretches 130 miles through northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania and joins with the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River. In 2008, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection tested the Mon’s water quality and noticed a strange thing: the river was becoming saltier. Concentrations of sulfates, bromide, and chloride were unusually high, and because the river provides drinking water to more than 800,000 people, the DEP and independent scientists began to monitor the river more closely. A year later, a massive fish kill in a tributary called Dunkard Creek led to increased concern about water quality in the basin. 

Seeing the need for a united approach to the problem, Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Water Quality in Urban Environmental Systems (WaterQUEST) held its first State of the Monongahela conference in 2010 to facilitate discussion and collaboration among the scientists and groups studying the river. Two years later, thanks to support from the Colcom Foundation, the conference continues to provide a valuable opportunity for scientists and water managers to share findings and discuss future steps in the management of the Monongahela.

WaterQUEST director and CEE professor Jeanne VanBriesen kicked off this year’s conference with a review of the river’s past and current issues. The first half of the conference focused on water quality data obtained over the past year, and included a presentation from VanBriesen on the research work of graduate students Jessica Wilson and Yuxin Wang. VanBriesen reviewed river water quality data from the past three years, noting that bromide levels have fallen significantly in the past year. She first grew concerned about bromide when concentrations rose in the summer of 2010 and remained elevated in 2011. This year, concentrations of bromide fell back to levels from 2009, which VanBriesen said is great news for the river’s drinking water treatment plants. Though bromide is not a concern on its own, it can create carcinogenic by-products when it mixes with disinfectants used to treat drinking water. Levels of these chemicals are strictly regulated to protect human health, but higher bromide levels can make it more difficult for drinking water plants to meet those requirements. 

Later in the morning, Rosemary Reilly of the Army Corps of Engineers presented data showing that total dissolved solids (salts) in the river were lower this year than in earlier years. Overall, the river is looking better than when researchers first began to respond to concerns about high salt in 2008 and 2009. A poster session followed the morning research presentations in which graduate researchers from several universities discussed their latest findings on the health of the Monongahela watershed.

In the second part of the conference, presenters talked about recent developments and new plans in the management of the river. Walter J. Blenko, Sr. University Professor and newly appointed Interim Vice Provost of Sponsored Programs Dave Dzombak spoke about the Ohio River Headwaters Resource Committee (HRC), a group that was recently formed to support and help inform a new initiative by the Ohio River Valley Water & Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) to examine water quantity management in the Ohio River Basin.  ORSANCO is an interstate pollution control agency that manages water quality across eight states in the basin. 

In his introduction of the HRC, Dzombak explained that the committee’s efforts will reflect the “growing importance of integrating the management of water quality with water quantity.” He pointed to external pressures on the river system from Marcellus shale drilling activity and water-poor neighbors such as the Atlanta metropolitan region, and emphasized that in order for the waters of the Ohio River Basin to remain healthy and fairly utilized, the states of the Basin must work together. The HRC’s members represent a variety of regional, commercial, and academic organizations, including Carnegie Mellon. Dzombak encouraged groups that are interested in engaging with the HRC to share information to contact the Steinbrenner Institute’s Deborah Lange.

This year’s State of the Monongahela conference gave scientists and stakeholders a valuable opportunity to share data and discuss new research activities aimed at protecting this important resource. CEE looks forward to new opportunities at the 2013 conference.