Water Quality Monitoring Program
The Smith Mountain Lake Water Quality Monitoring Program is the oldest and perhaps most well known of the student-involved research projects at Ferrum College. Concerned about maintaining the quality of the water, residents in the Smith Mountain Lake area initially contacted Ferrum and inquired about monitoring the quality of the water. Realizing that 20,000 acres is too much to handle with only students and two or three professors, the partnership between the lake community and Ferrum College was born. Over the course of the last 26 years, Ferrum has worked with a variety of volunteers, residents, community organizations and corporations to continue the project. Teams of volunteers take samples and check basic water quality, performing tests such as evaluating water clarity and checking for the presence of chlorophyl A and phosphorous. According to Dr. Carolyn Thomas, the Director of the project and professor of environmental science and biology, “We have some volunteer monitors who have been working on this project since the beginning—26 years! They are a great example of the importance of this work to the community.” Each summer since the program’s inception, trained students collect samples and analyze the samples collected by volunteers for chemical and bacterial contaminants. Bacteria sampling of the lake water was a component of the project added in 2003. Additionally, plankton nets are used to capture and analyze the algae found in the lake. Examining algae allows for a better understanding of how it settles as it dies, a process that removes oxygen from the water, in turn stressing the cool-water fish in the lake. The addition of depth profiling studies in 2005 gives researchers the opportunity to study what is taking place in the thermocline, the area between the warmer, upper layer of water and the colder, deeper layer of water in the lake.
As the Smith Mountain Lake project has grown over the years, so has funding for the work. Currently support is provided by American Electric Power and Appalachian Power Company, which use data from the studies conducted by Ferrum as part of their required submissions to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Funding and support have not always been that easy to secure, notes Dr. Thomas. “Over the years, we have cobbled together funding from many organizations, including the Smith Mountain Lake Association, the counties of Franklin, Bedford and Pittsylvania, the Tri-County Lake Administrative Commission and the Department of Environmental Quality. We are significantly more stable in our funding now because the data is evaluated by agencies like FERC.”
The Claytor Lake Water Quality Monitoring Program is also under the direction of Dr. Thomas and involves Ferrum College students as part of the monitoring process. Local officials in the counties surrounding Claytor Lake became aware of the Smith Mountain Lake project and approached other local universities with the idea of a similar project, believing that the smaller Ferrum College would not undertake two lake monitoring programs. After several unsuccessful attempts to secure a sponsor, these officials contacted Ferrum. Currently, samples are taken from Claytor Lake several times during the year and students travel to the lake for evaluations three times each summer. While the two lakes are different in source, size and monitoring needs, each offers students valuable opportunities. “Students see all levels with these projects, from the training meetings for volunteers and students, to working with citizens, taking samples and reporting back to the community and to other agencies. This is a perfect example of education beyond the environment,” says Dr. Bob Pohlad, Professor of Biology and Horticulture.