Newly Installed Super Gauge Helps USGS Monitor Water Quality, Bacteria Levels in Lower Anacostia River

Release Date:

Washington - A newly installed U.S. Geological Survey “super gauge” will provide people in the Washington area near real time information on bacteria levels and other water quality information for a portion of the Lower Anacostia River.

Installed this week at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the state-of-the-art gauge captures water quality conditions every five minutes and reports them by satellite and cellular transmission to the publicly accessible USGS WaterWatch website hourly.

The District of Columbia’s Department of Energy and Environment will use the information to better predict when water conditions may be unsafe for recreational users; other federal and state agencies and private organizations may find the information of use as well.

“We’re excited to partner with USGS as they help provide the scientific information necessary to both monitor and forecast bacteria levels in the Anacostia River,” said Ed Dunne of the District of Columbia’s Water Quality Division in the Department of Energy and Environment. “We’re committed to providing increased opportunities for the public to recreate in and on the river while keeping our focus of protecting the environment. This new information provided by the USGS is going to be invaluable as we work to make evidence-based decisions on water quality that is safe for swimming in the Lower Anacostia River.”

The nearly nine-mile-long Anacostia River, which flows from Maryland into Washington, and its associated parks and gardens provide critical habitat to many fish and bird species and attract thousands of outdoor enthusiasts to the area each year. However, excessive bacteria, among other pollutants such as trash and toxins, have posed health risks to humans and wildlife since the early 19th century and prevent certain recreational activities such as swimming.

Scientists aren’t yet able to pinpoint the sources of bacteria, but runoff from the largely developed, densely populated Anacostia River watershed and wastewater overflow from Washington’s combined sewer system during storms are thought to be large contributors.

The USGS has monitored water conditions in the Anacostia River watershed since the 1930s. In addition to the new super gauge at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park, the USGS plans to upgrade an existing streamflow gauge at Buzzard Point, where the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers converge in southeast Washington.

“This new gauge - the first of its kind on the Anacostia River - has the title of 'super gauge' because it incorporates new technology beyond the capabilities of standard instruments, providing a more complete picture and better understanding of contamination," said Jonathan Dillow, a hydrologist with the USGS Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Water Science Center. “The super gauge will analyze bacteria levels in addition to the more common ‘big five’ water-quality parameters, which are water temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen concentration, specific conductance and turbidity.”

The information collected by the USGS super gauges will complement the Department of Energy and Environment’s long-term sampling effort, which collects data on water quality and bacteria levels from 28 sites throughout the Lower Anacostia River and related tributaries every month.

In addition to the district’s Department of Energy and Environment, this project is supported by the USGS Urban Waters Federal Partnership-Directed Combined Matching Funds Program, which provides funding for studies related to understanding and remediation of urban watersheds.

In the long term, these super gauges could also help assess the effectiveness of restoration projects led by government agencies and local community groups focused on reviving the health of the Anacostia River, Dillow said.