Wading the Waters: Ferrum College collects water samples for 37 years on Smith Mountain Lake

Students and faculty test for bacteria and depth profiles starting in May and continuing into August
Published: May. 18, 2023 at 4:17 PM EDT
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MONETA, Va. (WDBJ) - For 37 years in a row, students and faculty at Ferrum College head out to Smith Mountain Lake during the months of May through August to collect water samples. One week they collect bacterial sampling. The other week is depth profiles to measure the amount of oxygen that is in the water as well as the different types of nutrients.

Delia Heck, Professor of Environmental Science at Ferrum College, says, “For us is what we’re doing, is we’re training students at Ferrum College with the skills that they need to engage in this for a lifetime. They learn the field skills which tend to be more glamorous. Who doesn’t want to spend a day on on a boat on Smith Mountain Lake? But they also learn what are the precise steps that need to take in order to analyze these samples.”

Faculty and students of Ferrum College venture out on Smith Mountain Lake for water quality...
Faculty and students of Ferrum College venture out on Smith Mountain Lake for water quality testing.(WDBJ7)

“The things that we test for here on Smith Mountain Lake include E. coli, which is the presence of bacteria in the water. We’re also interested in hazardous algal blooms. One of the tests we do is for water clarity, and we take a disc that has black and white markings on it and that we can get an immediate reading. We lower that into the water and we look for how deep into the water column we can see the distinction between the black and white that is a secchi disc. The other tests that we do we have to take those samples back to the lab and use analyses and different instruments,” says Heck.

Weather can play a role in water quality all thanks to runoff. Usually after a heavy rain event the Virginia Department of Health often warns people not to go swimming.

“Hazard hazardous algal blooms and with E. coli readings we get those after there’s runoff because those substances come across the land and bring those substances into the lake,” Heck explains.

You can check out weekly water quality readings during the months of May through August on the Smith Mountain Lake Association’s website.