Sound Science for a Healthy Basin

This blog was originally written by Dr. Oscar Flite as a guest blogger for Balancing the Basin. It can be viewed in its original form here.

In 2005, Phinizy Center for Water Sciences (formerly known as Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy), a nonprofit research and education center in Augusta, Georgia, developed a Savannah River research program with funds originating from individuals, foundations, municipalities, and industries, along with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. From 2006 to 2009 those funds helped develop a continuous monitoring network, a significant water quality database, and an assessment of the aquatic insect community along the Savannah River. Data were collected at 10 locations from 7 miles below Thurmond Dam to near Clyo, Georgia. The initial data allowed us to develop a complete understanding of how the Savannah River functions from a chemical, physical, biological, and geological perspective. It was also valuable in helping Georgia and South Carolina improve regulatory water quality modeling efforts. A summary of the data and analyses can be found in our final project report.

One parameter that we did not measure during the initial study was long-term biochemical oxygen demand (LTBOD), which helps determine oxygen loss by bacteria as they consume chemicals in the water. From 2009-2011, we focused on LTBOD, collecting and analyzing more than 70 river samples and more than 60 samples from dischargers within the Augusta area. Results from that study allowed us to develop a better understanding of how and where natural and manmade chemicals enter the river and impact oxygen concentrations. Data from that study are currently helping to inform decisions being made on low dissolved oxygen concentrations in the Savannah Harbor and Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) development for the basin. The data have also been valuable in helping improve regulatory water quality modeling efforts.

Phinizy Center scientist collecting an integrated water sample on the Savannah River (Courtesy Photo).

Phinizy Center scientist collecting an integrated water sample on the Savannah River.

Since rivers always move through different geological formations, past cities and farms, and through bottomland hardwood swamps, the biology, chemistry, and physics of the water constantly change. Our research program has focused on how best to sample the river as the water flows downstream (a Lagrangian perspective). Since 2006 we have collected samples according to travel time. We determined that getting in the river and collecting samples as you float downstream would be the best way to sample; in 2012 we did just that. Focusing on how the river processes wastewater and natural organic material, we developed a unique program using a houseboat that allowed us to float, at river speed (about 2 feet per second), from Augusta to Ebeneezer Creek (about 145 miles). During that study, we continuously measured water quality and sampled according to travel time. The data and analysis were invaluable and currently help to inform the discussions of low dissolved oxygen in the harbor and the TMDL.

Continuous monitoring is important for providing information on multiple time scales (hours, days, weeks, years). Real-time, continuous monitoring can be important for identifying events that could be catastrophic to the river’s ecosystem. Many of the current technologies act as “sentinels” by providing alarm settings that send text messages to the user when measurements are outside a particular range. If a program has been in place for a long time, those data provide an understanding of long-term trends and can be used to determine if water quality is improving or declining over time. Through generous donations from individuals and municipalities in 2012, we upgraded our monitoring program to a real-time, continuous system. Everyone has free access to the data here. Through donations from individuals and partnerships with municipalities, industries, and regulatory agencies we have kept this important program going since 2006; funding for one of the sites was provided through South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), as a result of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP). Data from that network will be important for assessing water quality as the fish passage at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam is constructed as part of the SHEP, as well.

We have also been fortunate to play a role in many other Savannah River research projects, some of which relate to the SHEP. These include: participation in the TMDL modeling group, collaborating with SCDNR with ongoing sturgeon research (SHEP project), providing Dial-Cordy and Associates with river velocity data for a sturgeon habitat assessment study (SHEP project), collaborating with The Nature Conservancy and others on ecosystem flow alternatives for the basin’s Comprehensive Study, Interim 2, and participation in the South Carolina Savannah River Basin Advisory Council.

A Phinizy Center scientist performing a long-term biochemical oxygen demand test (Courtesy Photo).

A Phinizy Center scientist performing a long-term biochemical oxygen demand test.

A recent collaboration with Georgia Southern University on a Supplemental Environmental Project related to a 2011 fish kill has allowed us to develop a similar real-time monitoring and research program in the Ogeechee River, the river basin immediately adjacent to the Savannah Basin. This valuable opportunity will not only allow us to learn more about the Ogeechee River, but comparative analyses will allow us to learn more about the Savannah River, too. Real-time data from that project can be seen here.

Finally, integration of our research efforts into our K-College education programs have been successful. Over the past 15 years, we have provided place-based education to more than 66,000 students on topics ranging from water quality, the water cycle, wetland functions, wastewater processes, stream ecology, and the urban watershed. Please see our website ( for more information about our education programs.

The Savannah River Basin is a complex and integrated system. Its nearly 10,000 square miles of land mass is connected by a resource that all ecology and economy within its drainage rely on: water. Upstream and downstream, Georgia and South Carolina, balancing the ecological and economic needs of the entire basin requires informed decision-making, and informed decision-making requires sound science. We are proud to play a role in the effort to maintain that balance.