Monitoring Protocols

Part of the Knowing Our Waters Project

Organizations that are monitoring surface waters in the Marcellus Shale use a spectrum of methods depending on the objectives of their programs and available resources. We therefore offer the following guide to help interpret these protocols. Readers can also find in-depth field manuals for water monitoring on the ALLARM website, and the Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited website. A good overview of volunteer monitoring is provided by Trout Unlimited in this short YouTube video.

Click the tabs below for more information on the different kinds of indicators, methods, frequencies, quality assurance, training and data management procedures used in water monitoring.

For a more detailed explanation of how monitoring organizations are using these protocols, see the Water Monitoring Organization Profiles page.

Core Indicators: The most common indicators for many programs are some combination of conductivity / Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) monitoring in combination with temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen (DO). These indicators are considered to be the most direct method for detecting extraction industry related impacts, but can also assist in detecting other stream health issues. The flow or depth of a stream is also an important measurement, necessary for correlating the relative dilution of other indicators in the water body. An example of how ALLARM instructs volunteers to do stream depth measurement is available in this YouTube video.

Secondary Indicators: In addition to core indicators, some groups monitor for barium, strontium, sulfates, nitrates, phosphates, iron, etc. These indicators can alert those who monitor to more specific causes of water quality disruptions due to a wide range of impacts including those caused by acid mine drainage (AMD), agricultural runoff, and nonpoint source pollution. In the event that a “core” indicator suggests possible contamination due to extraction impacts, monitoring groups often run additional tests on their samples using secondary indicators to pinpoint the source of the problem.

Visual Indicators: Visual monitoring is an important aspect of observing water quality impacts. Observations of road erosion, sedimentation, methane bubbling, and other habitat disruption can often provide warning signs of watershed impacts not detected in quantitative measurements.

Biological Indicators: Macroinvertebrate monitoring is the study of biological organisms present in a stream. “Macros” such as insects, crayfish, worms, and clams can be very sensitive to subtle water quality changes and are therefore good indicators of a stream’s overall ecological health.

Field samples: Field sampling or “grab sampling” is done manually at selected sites, by taking measurements with collection bottles and hand-held meters (i.e. LaMotte Tracer Pocket Tester), and chemistry kits (i.e. Lamotte Dissolved Oxygen Kit). In the case of benthic macroinvertebrate monitoring, field sampling involves gathering living organisms at different intervals with “kick nets” or other kinds of collection frames.

Data loggers: Data loggers, such as theSolinst LeveLogger Jr. and the Onset Hobo Logger, are common instruments for automated data collection. They are permanently anchored at points in a watershed.

Weekly to Monthly: Manual monitoring for chemical and visual indicators are typically done once a month, or more frequently in areas of greater concern.

Continuous: Data loggers monitor indicators at regular intervals, typically every 15 minutes.

Seasonal: Macroinvertebrate monitoring often occurs at the peak of a watershed’s hatching and breeding periods, such as in the spring and fall.

Equipment Calibration: Both hand-held meters and data loggers require regular calibration in order to ensure their accuracy. This is usually done by testing the sensors against a “neutral” sample with known pH and conductivity readings. An example of how Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited instructs volunteers to hand-held meter calibration is available in this YouTube video.

Duplicate Samples: For field sampling, one of the simplest ways to ensure the precision of measurements is to triangulate measurements by taking multiple samples at the same location and time.

Split Samples: Further quality assurances can be tested by sending water samples into a laboratory in sterilized bottles, where samples are then tested using precision equipment with greater precision and accuracy. Any detected discrepancies, such as a malfunctioning meter, can be detected and rectified. Split samples are typically done twice a year. An example of how Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited instructs volunteers to split-samples meter calibration is available in this YouTube video.

Laboratory Analysis: Many indicators cannot be tested in the field, such as barium and strontium, and require samples be sent to a laboratory for processing. This is often done in conjunction with split samples.

Service Providers: The Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM) and similar capacity building organizations have developed sophisticated testing protocols and training programs to assist volunteer groups in getting their monitoring programs off the ground. Other organizations in the Consortium for Scientific Assistance to Watersheds (C-SAW) network, offer training programs in the use of data loggers and benthic macroinvertebrate monitoring.

Local Training: Many organizations extend their knowledge of protocols developed by ALLARM and other service providers to continually train their own volunteers. This is often referred to “Train the Trainer” programs and can be very effective in expanding a group’s base of volunteers.

State Training: In the case of programs sponsored by state agencies, such as those in Maryland, staff from state conservation agencies provide training (as well as assist with QA/QC and data management tasks).

Local Management: In most cases data is managed in some capacity by those who participate in monitoring programs. Managing data locally offers volunteers an opportunity to understand the results of their efforts, and can facilitate the use of their data for local watershed management projects.

Service Providers: Service providers, such as ALLARM, and state-level organizations that conduct monitoring, such as Trout Unlimited, often have trained staff to assist chapters and affiliated groups in managing their data. The benefits of centrally-managed data include the ability to see the bigger picture of watershed health and to do cross-watershed comparisons.

Shared Databases: A number of sophisticated database projects have been developed in recent years to help the Marcellus Shale water monitoring community to manage their data. Two prominent examples include West Virginia University’s Three Rivers QUEST, and Penn State’s Shale Network. These projects are designed to both aggregate data from many different groups, and assist in interpreting monitoring data through charts and mapping tools. Shared databases also extend the usefulness of baseline water monitoring by creating a long-term home for data.

For more information, please contact Kirk Jalbert: