Testing the water: Virginia Tech team launches system to predict water conditions
Each morning, Jamie Morris, water production manager at the Western Virginia Water Authority in Roanoke, receives an automated email from a team of Virginia Tech researchers.
It resembles a weather forecast. But instead of predicting weather, it forecasts 16-day water quality conditions. It provides data about expected water temperatures and mixing, and soon it will include algae levels and amounts of dissolved oxygen in the Falling Creek Reservoir in Vinton.
Eventually, the water authority will begin using this information to determine how to chemically treat the reservoir water ahead of time, ensuring that it is palatable for Roanoke Valley residents. Falling Creek is one of four reservoirs managed by the authority.
“If we have a couple of days' notice, that’s much better than having to react within minutes,” Morris said.
After more than a year, this unique water forecasting system, developed by a Virginia Tech team led by Cayelan Carey, an assistant professor of biological sciences, is ready to go. And it is drawing interest from groups around the globe who want to emulate it. In May, a representative from a group that manages lakes in Ireland and in other parts of Europe is making plans to visit Virginia Tech to see the forecasting system in action.
The work started in 2018 after Carey’s team received a $1 million Smart and Connected Communities grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a real-time water forecasting system for the reservoir. Since then, faculty and graduate students representing various disciplines have visited the reservoir weekly in the spring and summer and monthly in the winter to install sensors, take water samples, and collect other data.
Meanwhile, Falling Creek has been offline since June because of concern over poor water quality, Morris said.
The spring is an important time of year for tracking water quality. As outside temperatures warm, more algae can develop in water, creating taste and odor issues, and possibly staining.
Before Carey’s team got involved, the water authority’s lab technicians collected water samples by hand at the reservoir and took them back to the lab for testing, Morris said.
Now, “it’s much easier when I pull up a graph” from Carey’s lab, he said.
Sensors that Carey’s team installed in the reservoir collect a variety of information, such as carbon and oxygen levels and aquatic life. This information, combined with weather predictions and a model, is transmitted to a cloud network that water utility managers and scientists can access, Carey said.
A key gauge in this forecast is the likelihood of the lake turning over, which occurs when cold temperatures cause the water layers to break down and mix, bringing iron, manganese, and nutrients from the bottom of the lake to the top. This results in poor water quality, Morris said.
Carey’s team uses a modeling system that Quinn Thomas, an assistant professor of forest dynamics and ecosystem modeling at Virginia Tech, created to study the growth of loblolly pine forests. It translates well to water work, he said.
“We can post our forecast before the next day happens,” Thomas said. “That’s the foundation of the scientific method, making predictions based on inference that you’ve developed over time.”
Carey’s team includes undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty who are ecologists, social scientists, geologists, and engineers spanning the College of Science, the College of Engineering, and the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Across disciplines, “the whole idea is that every piece feeds into another piece,” Carey said.
For example, Virginia Tech computer science students have visited the reservoir to understand how water data is collected, while natural science students are helping social science students collect data.
“By engaging in the hands-on experience of working together in really applied settings, but in ways that are predictable to making a project work, students are being exposed to different disciplines in ways that would never be possible in the classroom,” Carey said.
Whitney Woelmer, a Virginia Tech graduate student studying biological sciences who works in Carey’s lab, is one of the team members. Her passion for water and the environment stems from growing up in Michigan, surrounded by the state’s many lakes.
“Our job is to say what we think will happen,” Woelmer said of the forecasting system. Her focus is analyzing the presence of the reservoir’s phytoplankton, which are microscopic algae.
Both students and faculty are gearing up for more visits to the reservoir this summer. Woelmer also is leading a new water sampling initiative in the Beaverdam Creek Reservoir, which is managed by the water authority, in Bedford County.
This summer, a Virginia Tech graduate student and a team of other students will survey Roanoke area residents about their water. Michael Sorice, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech, is leading this group. They plan to survey 800 Roanoke Valley residents about their water and their trust of a water utility’s work to keep it safe for consumption. The team will go door-to-door with surveys for residents to fill out.
The idea is to understand a community’s response, Sorice said. He also is working with the water authority to identify ways that employees can integrate data from the forecasting system into their daily workflow.
The fundamental question — “How can we design this system so that it is meeting a real need for the water authority?” Sorice said.
Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone