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W&L Junior Wades into Water-Pollution Study

Gabriella Kitch will be wading in water and loving every minute of it during her junior year at Washington and Lee. A major in geology with a minor in environmental studies, Kitch grew up near the ocean in San Diego, California, and claims a great affinity with any kind of water. Since coming to W&L, she has expanded her interest to include rivers and her career goal to include the environmental field.

Kitch is working on one part of a new project, “From the Mountains to the Sea,” that comprises participants from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and academics from Virginia Commonwealth University, Randolph-Macon College and Washington and Lee. The four-year project is funded by a combined $560,000 grant from MeadWestvaco, Dominion Foundation and Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, and will track pollution from the headwaters of the James River to the Chesapeake Bay.

“We are developing a series of water-monitoring stations to assess the accumulation and progress of pollutants from the headwaters of the James River down to the tidal waters,” explained Robert Humston, associate professor of biology at W&L and part of the academic consortium. “That means we can monitor, in real time—constantly and at regular intervals—levels and turbidity in the tidal region.”

Humston’s biology class has collected water-quality data on local streams for many years. Kitch will expand that effort by measuring the actual amounts of key pollutants—nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria and sediment—flowing downstream and contributing to the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.

In preparation, Kitch spent the summer at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science Center, in Richmond, learning protocols and how to measure pH, turbidity and temperature. She also learned how to calibrate equipment, take samples from rivers throughout Virginia, and process them in the laboratory.

“Sometimes we would take samples by throwing a small bottle off a bridge into the water,” said Kitch. “But the days that were the most fun were when we were waist-deep in the water. It was a small department, and we worked closely with everyone, from the head supervisors to the field technicians. It gave me a lot of great hands-on experience.”

Kitch explained that the scientists at the Water Science Center have been conducting this work for more than 100 years. “They want to get samples that represent the whole river, including the width and the depth. If there’s a faster velocity, the river is going to be moving differently on the bottom than it is on the top, which could mess with the sample,” she said.

“It’s not hyperbole to say that these are among the best scientists in the world when it comes to understanding water quality and the best method for monitoring and measuring it,” said Humston. “Gabriella is now bringing the methods she learned back to the Washington and Lee campus, and she’ll set up a work station in my lab.” As part of the overall grant, Humston’s laboratory will receive new quality-monitoring equipment, including an Acoustic Doppler Current reader, which uses sound-wave-based methods to estimate water velocity.

Once a month, Kitch will take samples to estimate the pollutants and bacteria in Woods Creek (part of the Upper James Watershed) that flow into the Maury River and then into the James River. During the fall term, she will teach and demonstrate her methods to biology classes that are conducting similar work. During the winter term, she will help to train next year’s intern for the Geological Survey.

“One of the reasons we chose Gabriella from among the applicants for this internship was her strong interest in water and hydrology,” noted Humston. “I think the idea of working for the U.S. Geological Survey really appealed to her, plus these internships are difficult to get and create useful connections with the scientists there. Ultimately, I see this project as an opportunity for our students to work in water-quality monitoring with some of the best scientists in the world.”