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Researchers outline study of Ogeechee River
Charles Patterson, vice president of Research and Economic Development, begins the first of four Ogeechee River Research public information sessions. - photo by Photo courtesty of Georgia Southern University

STATESBORO — Research leaders from Georgia Southern University and the Phinizy Center for Water Sciences revealed the outlines this week for two-and-a-half years of basic research to support an environmental early warning system for the Ogeechee River.

A little more than $1 million for the research comes from King America Finishing, now owned by Milliken & Co., under King America’s 2013 consent decree with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Georgia Southern’s Biology Department, its Geology and Geography Department and the Phinizy Center, based at Phinizy Swamp Park near Augusta, are working together in the research. They will study climate along the river, the health of organisms that live in it, and its water chemistry.

“We’re trying to build up a baseline of data, to have a good understanding of how the river functions over this three-year period so that we can be able to react to different challenges that the river might face,” said GSU Biology Department Chairman Steve Vives.

The three calendar years are 2014, 2015 and 2016, as set in motion by the November consent decree. As part of the agreement, King America funded a $1.3 million Supplemental Environmental Project, or SEP, upgraded from a previous $1 million, which also includes $75,000 for 18 months of third-party monitoring of its fabric finishing plant’s discharge into the river and $158,609 for upgrades to the city of Millen’s wastewater treatment plant.

King America also settled a federal lawsuit brought by the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, agreeing to pay $2.5 million to that nonprofit group, and reportedly spent another $2.5 million on changes at the plant, including a new discharge filtration system.

Although the EPD had found King America in violation of its previous permit for chemicals in its discharge, the agency never said that King America’s discharge caused the massive May 2011 fish kill that prompted its investigation. Instead, a June 2012 EPD report stated that bacteria probably killed the fish after they were stressed by high temperatures and low water flows.

Milliken, a textile company that touts a pro-environment stance, purchased King America’s parent company, Westex Inc., in May.

New field station
The research now beginning will look at how multiple factors, such as drought and temperature, bacteria and naturally occurring and introduced chemicals, interact to affect the health of fish and other organisms.

For much of the work, the university will have long-term access to about 250 acres of woodland along the river, south of Highway 24 near the Oliver Bridge. The university is completing an agreement for use of the land with other state agencies, announced Charles Patterson, GSU vice president for research and economic development.

The Pier Point site, to be used as a field station or “living laboratory,” is owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation and maintained by the Department of Natural Resources. In addition to the river research, the site can be used for research by the GSU archaeologists, with the Department of Transportation having a need for archaeology work on its lands, Patterson said.

Biology, Geology and Geography
But for now, the river research is putting the spotlight on Georgia Southern’s departments of biology and geology-geography. In addition to professors, 10 students are now involved.

Geology and Geography Department Chairman Jeffrey Underwood listed six faculty members, all with doctorates, as an interdisciplinary team leading “terrestrial,” or land-based, research.

Underwood is a meteorologist, and weather will be a component. The team will also look at water flows and geochemistry in the forest and underground, using Global Information System data to plot positions. The goal will be to understand the paths and chemical loading of water entering the river from the flood plain.

Meanwhile, a team led by biology faculty will look at “in-stream processes” or what’s happening in the river. Researchers will measure toxicity in water and sediments, the abundance of algae and aquatic insects, and fish populations and their stress tolerance and development.

One of the biology faculty members, Vinoth Sittaramane, described how zebra fish, a fast-growing, nonnative minnow, will be used to study the effect of river water and various conditions on the fish’s embryonic and longer-term development.

Using electric shock to stun them, researchers will also gather fish from the river for study.

The Phinizy Center
Until this year, the Phinizy Center for Water Sciences was known as the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy. Founded in 1996, the nonprofit organization has done extensive monitoring on the Savannah River.

Part of the Phinizy’s assignment is continuous water monitoring with six electronic monitoring stations along an almost 200-mile stretch of the Ogeechee. As part of this work, the Phinizy Center took over maintenance of two EPD monitoring stations earlier this year.

Currently, real-time data from four Ogeechee sites can be accessed by the public at The measurements, updated every 15 minutes, include temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and conductivity, an indicator of water saltiness.

The Phinizy Center is looking for sites for more monitoring stations, preferring to place them near U.S. Geological Survey flow gauges when possible, said Ocsar Flite, the center’s CEO and senior scientist. Relating the other measurements to water flow is a much more powerful way of looking at the data, Flite said.

Less frequent sampling methods will be used for other measurements. Organic carbon and nitrogen, dissolved ammonia, nitrates and nitrites, phosphorous and chlorides will be measured monthly; fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria every two months; and five-day and long-term biological oxygen demand annually.

Researchers hope to develop a 10-by-10 matrix of how various factors interact. The scientists say they won’t be the decision makers, but will supply information that river stakeholders, such as the EPD, Ogeechee Riverkeeper and the public, can use in making decisions about the river’s health.

Underwood gave the example of a scale of drought conditions he created, which ranges from severe drought at negative 4 to to very wet conditions at positive 4.

“I’m not going to be the one who sets the point at which a bell or whistle goes off, but a stakeholder might use that matrix and say, OK, if the drought goes into a category negative 3, then let’s start looking at alternative ways to manage river resources,” he said.

Ogeechee Riverkeeper Executive Director Emily Markesteyn said she was excited to see the research projects beginning and looks for them to provide an overview of how the river is functioning and how people affect it.