Savannah River analysis yields mysteries, surprises

Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 7:11 PM
Last updated 8:54 PM
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Oscar Flite learned long ago there is no shortage of secrets to be found in the wandering channel that links Augusta to the sea.

Scientist Jason Moak is part of a team studying the Savannah River's water quality. Recent studies have found it improves downstream from Augusta.  ZACH BOYDEN-HOLMES/STAFF
Scientist Jason Moak is part of a team studying the Savannah River's water quality. Recent studies have found it improves downstream from Augusta.

“We mainly wanted to mea­sure the Savannah Riv­er’s metabolism,” said Flite, the Southeastern Natural Sci­en­ces Academy research vice president. “But along the way we came upon some other surprises.”

During a five-day float trip aboard a boat crammed with monitoring gear, Flite and his colleagues followed a column of river water from Augusta to a point 145 miles downstream, where tidal influences begin to alter its flow.

The idea, he said, was to determine if computer models used by environmental regulators to license industrial and municipal waste discharges could be improved.

“They put a parcel of water into the computer and add in the discharges and any changes that are proposed,” he said. “What we did was to mimic what the modelers do, but in the actual water that goes downriver.”

During the June voyage, constant readings were taken to measure dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide, salinity, temperature and other factors.

Most studies don’t monitor so many parameters, he said, but taken together, the information helps define a living, breathing river that changes significantly as it moves downstream.

Although federal regulators have suggested that low oxygen levels in Savannah Harbor could be improved by limiting waste discharges far upstream in Augusta, monitoring data show water quality recovers, and in some cases improves, long before it reaches coastal waters.

The study also found that carbon dioxide levels were exceptionally high in Augusta – in fact, oversaturated to the point it was escaping from the water.

Downstream, however, levels were so low that the water was absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The changes, Flite said, might be due to photosynthesis in which algae consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen during the day. Then, at night, bacteria consume dissolved oxygen, but generate more carbon dioxide.

“Plants rule the day,” he said, “and bacteria rule the night.”

One of the most interesting surprises of the trip was a series of occasional – and unexpected – spikes in carbon dioxide levels in the water column.

The scientists noticed those anomalies occurred where large bluffs rise from one side of the channel. Those sites turned out to be the hidden locations where groundwater from subterranean aquifers empties into the Savannah River.

“Carbon dioxide is high in groundwater, naturally,” Flite said. “One of the things we’ve wondered is, where does natural material come in? We didn’t expect to see it in a CO2 survey but we did.”

Once compiled and validated, the data will be shared with Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division and the S.C. Department of Health & Environmental Control, which regulate dozens of waste generators vying for a share of the river’s limited assimilative capacity.

A second round of the ongoing experiment is planned for early next year, during the winter.

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soapy_725 09/09/12 - 10:05 am
Very interesting....

Wonder what would happen if we removed the lock and dam and allowed the water to be oxygenated and cleaned by the natural rapids that nature placed in the "eco system". Destroy the natural balance with forward thinking projects and then "marvel at the negative effects". Pure Rocky Mountain Water. Maybe we should bring crude oil barges up the Savannah and then we could test for hydrocarbon deposits? But it makes environmental scientist and researcher rich. Sort of like looking for water on Mars. And it is all about the Benjamins.

soapy_725 09/09/12 - 10:09 am
The metabolism measure....

in Augusta's pool waters is pretty much full of ____. So Augusta's metabolic rate should be fine. No yogurt enzymes needed.

Wonder if they tested during one of the frequent bypassing of raw sewerage from the ARC treatment plant? The BOD would be zero, nil, nada, nunca.

Sweet son
Sweet son 09/09/12 - 12:58 pm
As Always Great Article Rob!

Wonder what would happen if these guys floated the Ogeechee past the King Plant at Sylvania? Wonder if the Riverkeepers would be proven or disproven?

Rob Pavey 09/10/12 - 10:01 am
the Ogeechee? why not?

thank you, SS, and that sounds like a worthy idea, which we will of course convey to Dr. Flite and his team.

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