Potomac River Water Quality at Great Falls: 1940 – 2019 Archives

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Potomac River Water Quality at Great Falls: 1940 – 2019

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates Washington Aqueduct and provides drinking water to the Washington, D.C. area. Washington Aqueduct routinely samples its source of water, the Potomac River. Each year, it reports the monthly averages for basic water parameters and several pollutants and metals. Reports since 2001 are available online. Reports from 1905 to 2000, however, had limited distribution and their legibility has faded over time.

Dr. Norbert A. Jaworski recognized the historical value of these reports. To prevent their loss, he digitized the monthly values for several parameters. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) later updated his dataset through 2019 and checked the entered data for accuracy. This report focuses on changes in temperature, hardness, pH, total solids, chloride, nitrate, and sulfate over the 80 years since ICPRB was formed in 1940. Visual representations (“heatmaps”) and trend analysis show significant increasing trends in all these parameters except nitrate. The report is intended to introduce the historical Washington Aqueduct water quality data to a broader audience and highlight their potential value to Potomac studies.

The Supplemental Materials document contains additional graphical representations of the data.

See the video summary of the report:

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Rapid Response Survey of Cyanobacteria Toxin Levels Downstream of North Fork Shenandoah River Algal Bloom After Tropical Storm Ida, 2021

The Virginia Department of Health issued a Harmful Algae Bloom (HAB) Advisory for a 53-mile stretch of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River on August 10, 2021 (Figure 1, left). Samples from multi-species algal mats on the river bottom contained harmful levels of toxins produced by cyanobacteria. Three weeks later, Tropical Storm Ida passed over the North Fork, dumping torrential rain on the watershed. Sharply rising streamflows were expected to scour the benthic algal mats, potentially lysing their cells and releasing toxins as they washed downstream. The ICPRB’s Emergency River Spill Model (ERSM) indicated the scoured material’s leading edge would reach the Potomac River mainstem by September 2nd – 4th and Great Falls near Washington, D. C. by September 3rd – 6th.

Virginia Department of Environmental Quality staff confirmed the algal mats were scoured off the river bottom. Water samples collected by ICPRB at the Shenandoah River mouth indicate the storm’s high flows diluted the algal cells and their associated toxins to below-detection levels before they reached the Potomac River. If flows had been less intense, we hypothesize the scoured material and toxins could potentially have reached the Potomac River mainstem. More advanced flow modeling and additional sampling during algal blooms could better characterize the potential transport of scoured or senescing algal blooms in the Shenandoah River under different river conditions.

Scientist sends testing equipment attached to a rope over the side of a bridge. Shenandoah river is below the bridge.

Rt. 340 bridge over Shenandoah River near Harpers Ferry, WV