Virginia Water Samples Being Collected to Assess Air Pollution Impacts
Monterey, VA –
During late April, hundreds of volunteers are fanning out across the mountain counties of western Virginia to collect water samples from headwater streams. They are assisting with a long-term study of the effects of air pollution on the chemistry of these streams. Highland county resident, Rick Webb is a senior scientist in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. He is the director of the Virginia Trout Stream Sensitivity Study and the Shenandoah Watershed Study.
“The Virginia Trout Stream Sensitivity Study is a program design to track the chemical composition and other factors that determine the equatic ecosystem and the health of Virginia’s mountain streams,” said Webb. “We’re funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Parks Service. The EPA funds us in order to get the data that they need to be able to determine the effectiveness of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.”
Samples are being collected in 22 counties, with the help of about 200 volunteers, said Webb. The samples are brought to the Environmental Science Department laboratory at the University of Virginia for analysis. The samples are being tested for the presence of elements such as sulphur, Webb said, which causes acid rain.
Through the 1980s, several scientific studies showed that air pollution, primarily from coal-fired electric power plants, was leading to the release of sulphur into the air. Much of this sulphur was then deposited by rainfall into mountain streams in Virginia and other eastern states. The sulphur combined with water forming an acid which significantly increased the acidity of these streams. Subsequent studies showed that the numbers of trout and insects were decreasing in these streams. The acidity turned out to be the most important cause in these declines in biodiversity. Mr. Webb goes on to discuss important findings of this long-term study.
“The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 reduced the emissions from power plants by about 50 percent,” Webb said. “Our job is to determine whether that reduction is achieving the kind of recovery that is expected.”
“About a third of Virginia’s trout streams have been impacted severely by acid rain,” Web continued. “A number of them are no longer able to support the fish and aquatic life that they formerly did. We are seeing some recovery, but not all of the streams that have been damaged are recovering.”
This sampling and analysis will continue every ten years into the future. In addition to this program, about 65 streams are being sampled every 3 months to get a more detailed look at changes in the chemistry of these watersheds that not only support native trout, but also supply millions of people in the eastern united states.