2020 Water Quality Year in Review

February 01, 2021 12:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Harry Looney - February 2021

2020 was a busy year for your Water Quality Committee and the thirty-five plus volunteers that are the lifeblood of our efforts to adhere to LACA’s mission to preserve and protect the cleanliness, beauty, and safe use of Lake Anna and its watershed.  The group accomplished a lot during the year, continuing our eighteen-year history of monitoring water quality parameters in the lake and its tributaries.  We also expanded the program to include a focus on cyanobacteria and the Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) that have plagued the lake over the past few recreational seasons.  Let’s review what your Water Quality Committee was up to in 2020.

LACA established a Water Quality Improvement Program (WQIP) this year to bring multiple internal projects and organizational efforts under a common framework.  The WQIP captures all that LACA is engaged in, from a water quality perspective, to achieve its objectives of preserving, conserving, and protecting our water resources.  Our focus expanded from the lake and a few of the streams and creeks in the lake’s drainage area to the entire portion of the Upper York River.  Our lake and the streams and creeks that flow into the lake are part of the York River watershed.  The map below shows the area of the York River watershed that comprise the Lake Anna drainage area.  It also shows the areas of water impairments as specified by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in their latest biennial Integrated Assessment Report. 

As you can see from the map, we have a lot of work to do to improve water quality in this 218,500-acre portion of the York River watershed.  It is also clear that our area of concern is much bigger than just the lake and that we must focus our efforts and resources to address the multitude of problems that we face.  This is why we developed the WQIP. 

The Water Quality Committee focused on six priority WQIP areas in 2020.  The six priority areas are described in the following paragraphs.

1) Water Quality Monitoring The oldest and most well-known effort under the WQIP is our water quality monitoring project that conducts sampling four times each year during the recreational season (April, June, August, and October).  In 2020, LACA conducted sampling at twenty-one stations on the lake (public and private sides of the lake) and four stream/creek locations in the watershed.  The stations we sampled were coordinated with DEQ who conducts monthly sampling at nine lake stations and thirteen stream/creeks stations.  Our close coordination with DEQ ensures we do not duplicate efforts.  Our sampling session in April was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions but we were able to resume operations in June and continue through the season’s end in October.  Data from the LACA sampling activities are available on the LACA website under the Water Quality Data page.

An issue we started experiencing in late 2019 that continued in 2020 is sensor failure in our current water quality instruments.  Based on these failures, LACA initiated a recapitalization effort to purchase instruments that are used by our current partners (DEQ, Virginia Tech and Randolph-Macon College).  The instrument we are transitioning to is the ProDSS model manufactured by Xylem/YSI. 

The outcome of this multi-year recapitalization effort will be improved synchronization of stakeholder monitoring activities and a tighter achievement of a “shared measurement system” with our partners.

We would like to thank DEQ, especially the Northern Regional Office (NRO), for all the work they do to monitor water quality in the Lake Anna drainage area.  Our relationship is strong and we are extremely lucky to have such a dedicated and professional partner.

2) Cyanobacteria / HAB Monitoring: LACA established a WQIP project in 2020 focused on cyanobacteria/HAB monitoring.  We monitored the lake on a three-week cycle from May through November.  We sampled twelve stations in the mid and lower lake during the first week of each cycle, ten stations in the upper lake during the second week of each cycle, and six stations in the Waste Heat Treatment Facility (WHTF) during the third week of each cycle.  We completed eight cycles during the seven-month period of sampling.  There were two primary objectives for this effort.  The first objective was to establish a capability to keep our members informed, on a more regular basis, of HAB issues in the lake.  To do this we purchased instruments that allow us to measure for the presence and concentration of cyanobacteria in water samples and to measure for two of the toxins produced by cyanobacteria.  The second objective was to establish a HAB data baseline for the lake over a full recreational season.  Data from the cyanobacteria/HAB sampling activities in 2020 are available on the LACA website under the Water Quality Data page. 

DEQ also sampled for cyanobacteria during the 2020 recreational season.  DEQ sampled seven upper lake stations and sent the samples to the Phytoplankton Analysis Lab at Old Dominion University (ODU) for analysis (ODU is the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) laboratory for cyanobacteria analysis).  The results of these analyses are what VDH used to issue the swim advisories that were posted for the upper lake this past recreational season.  While the LACA project cannot be used by VDH to issue or remove swim advisories, we were pleased with the response we received from VDH and DEQ on our efforts and the data we generated. 

This resource intensive LACA effort was conducted in partnership with the Schamle Lab at Virginia Tech.  This partnership was established in 2019 through a connection established by Lowell Pratt, a LACA Water Quality volunteer and Team Lead for our water quality monitoring program.  We provided information on this program in a Newsletter article earlier this year (see Drone-ing for Cyanobacteria and Cyanotoxins).  We cannot thank Dr. David Schmale and Ms. Regina Hanlon enough for their research and support to better understand our cyanobacteria issues.  We are excited about continuing to partner with Virginia Tech in 2021 on this important issue.

A significant addition to the cyanobacteria / HAB efforts was initiated by DEQ and ODU in late 2020 to address data limitations specific to the Lake Anna cyanobacteria issue.  The data limitations stem from the fact that DEQ and LACA sampling and VDH/ODU analysis to date focused on only a few areas of the lake and specifically on cyanobacteria species that could produce toxins.  The algal data set for Lake Anna is therefore incomplete and assessments are limited with respect to being able to predict outcomes from actions taken to reduce algal populations such as cyanobacteria.  To address this data limitation, DEQ began collecting samples in November at seven upper lake stations.  They will collect monthly for a period of twelve months to ensure a time-phased analysis can be completed.  ODU conducts the analysis and data logging that will result in a better understanding of the full algal taxonomy in the lake.  LACA intends to join this effort to expand the sampling into the lower portion of the lake.  Our sampling will begin in April and be executed monthly for a period of twelve months.  The outcome from this research will be a report, issued by ODU, which provides LACA and other researchers a complete characterization and quantification of cyanobacteria in the lake.  We will use this report and the data produced from the research effort to develop remediation plans and efforts for the HAB issues we have experienced for the past several recreational seasons.

3)  Sediment Sampling:  LACA established a partnership with DEQ and Randolph-Macon College (R-MC) in 2020 to conduct research on nutrient loading in the lake sediment.  This research effort investigates eutrophication in Lake Anna.  Eutrophication is the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates) that stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen.  The primary culprits in eutrophication are nitrogen and phosphorus—from sources including fertilizer runoff and septic system effluent to atmospheric fallout from burning fossil fuels—which enter the lake and fuel the overgrowth of algae, which, in turn, reduces water quality and degrades the Lake Anna ecosystem.  A previous newsletter article provided information on the research program initiated during the fall academic semester (see Sediment Sampling in the Upper Lake Region).  LACA is pleased that both DEQ and R-MC plan to continue the partnership during the spring semester of 2021.  The work to be completed during the semester includes additional sediment sampling activities, expanded data analysis and land-use studies using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and the development of experimental designs and methods for studies/experiments that LACA may conduct in the future.

4) Floating Treatment Wetlands LACA established a pilot research effort in late 2020 to investigate the use of Floating Treatment Wetlands (FTW) to address the cyanobacteria and nutrient loading issues in the lake. 

FTWs are man-made, floating ecosystems that utilize native aquatic plants to mimic natural wetlands.  The FTWs improve water quality by filtering the water, consuming nutrients, and breaking down pollutants in the water.  FTWs also provide a habitat for fish and other wildlife.  FTWs float on the surface of the water with the roots of the plants submerged into the water column.  The plants remove nutrients through a process called Biological Uptake.  Mike Gelber wrote a Newsletter article this month on LACA’s implementation of this remediation technique and you are encouraged to go to his article for more detailed information on this effort.  LACA intends to expand our pilot program in 2021 installing several FTWs in the upper portions of the lake that have experienced HAB issues. 

This image illustrating how a FTW works to reduce nutrient loading in a lake was prepared by the Virginia Tech Extension, a fantastic resource for FTW data and information. 

5) Remote Sensing Predictive Capability: LACA’s current approach to planning water quality monitoring in the Upper York River basin is based on historical data.  Analysis of the historical data dictate the sampling plan for the upcoming year.  While this reactive approach has value and will be maintained as part of our planning, LACA needs a more proactive approach to water quality monitoring.  LACA initiated a partnership with Quantum Applied Analytics, LLC, a local tech company that specializes in data analysis from remote sensing platforms to include satellite data from NASA/United States Geological Survey (USGS) and European Space Agency (ESA) space platforms and the data repositories established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  An example image from the ESA Sentinel 2B satellite on the 13th of January that depicts chlorophyll readings from their analysis of sensor data is provided below.  LACA and Quantum Applied Analytics, LLC will use the data in these datasets to predict where and when algal blooms might occur. 

This is an exciting new aspect to our WQIP that we hope will allow us to be more proactive in our sampling efforts and make better use of our limited financial resources.  The outcome from this effort will deliver an algorithm, or set of algorithms, to predict where chlorophyll and cyanobacteria concentrations are based on satellite imagery.

6) Grant Submissions:  LACA’s Water Quality Program is funded through member dues, donations, and grants.  DEQ and Spotsylvania County have been long time supporters of our program and we receive annual grants from both.  Louisa County has awarded grants in the past and we are hopeful that we will resume their support soon.  While these grants provide the foundation of our water quality program, our expanded WQIP projects require additional financial resources.  Therefore, the Water Quality Committee has been active in applying for funding through federal, state and foundation grant programs.  We won a grant from Dominion Energy that will fund our FTW program in 2021 and we are hopeful that a grant submission to the Virginia Environmental Endowment (VEE) will be awarded to fund expanded efforts in water quality monitoring, sediment sampling, HAB sampling and analysis and our remote sensing efforts.  We are expanding our partnerships into the watersheds to our north (Rappahannock River) and our south (James River) to ensure we have a regional focus to our efforts, something that the agencies and foundations managing grant resources sometimes require for award of grant funds.  The Water Quality Committee is looking for additional grant programs to apply to so if you are interested in supporting our grant writing efforts, please reach out to the author at the email provided in the author’s tag line.

To wrap up this annual report on LACA’s WQIP, it is important to highlight the important role of our partners in monitoring and improving water quality in our part of the York River watershed.  The LACA WQIP was strengthened through inputs from these partners and stakeholders:  Virginia DEQ (a partner since we established our water quality monitoring program in 2002), VDH, USGS, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), the counties of Spotsylvania, Louisa, and Orange, universities/colleges including Virginia Tech, ODU and R-MC, Dominion Energy, the Lake Anna Advisory Committee (LAAC), and industry partners,  Quantum Applied Analytics, LLC, and EA Engineering, Science & Technology, Inc.  Additionally, your Water Quality Committee joined with the Environmental Preservation Committee in engaging the York River and Small Coastal Basin (YRSCB) Roundtable as representatives from the Upper York River and as members of the YRSCB Roundtable’s Science sub-committee.  The stakeholders met multiple times in 2020 via Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms to address issues in Lake Anna and the Upper York River watershed. The stakeholders continue to interface on a regular basis to ensure all organizations are moving forward in a common, agreed upon direction while we reduce the likelihood of duplicating the expenditure of scarce, limited resources.

Harry Looney, LACA Water Quality Project Officer, harry.looney@lakeannavirginia.org

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