Water Quality Monitoring Program Begins 34th Season

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Water Quality Monitoring Program Begins 34th Season

Ferrum College students work with Professor of Environmental Science Delia Heck during the 34th season of the Water Quality Monitoring Program. Left to right: Samuel Chappell; Michelle Musick; Delia Heck; and Chelsea Zizzi. Bob Pohlad photo.

Last week, the Smith Mountain Lake Association (SMLA) and Ferrum College Water Quality Monitoring Program began its 34th season. Since 1987, Ferrum College has worked with the SMLA to perform periodic testing of the lake water to help keep swimmers and boaters safer.

The Ferrum College portion of the team is made up of Program Director and Professor of Environmental Science and Natural Science Division Chair Delia Heck; Senior Scientist and Retired Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Environmental Science David Johnson; Senior Scientist and Retired Professor Emeritus of Biology and Horticulture Bob Pohlad; Program Scientist and Assistant Professor of Biology and Horticulture Clay Britton; and Laboratory and Field Coordinator Carol Love.

Heck took over the director’s position after the January 2020 death of former Program Director and Retired Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science Carolyn Thomas. Thomas helped found the program. 

This year, the team also consists fifty-four citizen scientists at Smith Mountain Lake who volunteer their time, and five paid Ferrum College student interns: senior Jacob Blaukovitch who is pursing a degree in chemistry, biology, and pre-professional health science (pre-med), with a one health minor; senior Lexi Davidson who is majoring in environmental science and minoring in biology; senior Michelle Musick who is earning an environmental science degree; senior Samuel Chappell who is majoring in environmental science and plans to graduate this December; and junior Chelsea Zizzi who is pursing a major in chemistry with a minor in English.

The Water Quality Monitoring Program is a labor of love for the Ferrum College team as it commands many hours during the summer months. “We test for bacteria every two weeks at fourteen sites with two stations at each site,” explained Heck. “We conduct depth profiles at five sites every two weeks. Our volunteers monitor and interns collect samples at fifty-six lake sites and twenty-two tributaries for trophic status monitoring.”

The team tests for e-Coli and other harmful bacteria. They also monitor algae biodiversity, watching for harmful algal blooms. 

This year’s testing is even more complex than previous years due to COVID-19 restrictions. Heck said the team has developed safety protocols, including restricting interactions in the testing lab and with volunteers, implementing virtual training videos, rigid sanitizing, social distancing, wearing masks, and taking their temperatures daily. Each team member and volunteer also uses their own equipment including hand sanitizer, pens, personal flotation devices, and more.

Heck explained that water quality testing is not only important to keep swimmers and boaters safe, but is also an indicator of challenges in our environment. “Water is essential to our life on Earth. We face a changing climate and the interconnectedness between humans, health, and the environment are made clearer every day,” said Heck. “The project will continue to serve as an early warning sentinel as well as a model for how to to work collaboratively with our neighbors in living out our motto of Not Self, But Others. The partnership with the business sector, state government, and community exemplifies the very best Ferrum College has to offer our region.”


The 34th season of water quality monitoring has been dedicated to Carolyn Thomas, founding member of the program and beloved Ferrum College professor. The following statement was sent to this year’s citizen scientists in her honor:

“The Smith Mountain Lake Association and Ferrum College Water Quality Monitoring Program are dedicating the 2020 monitoring season to the memory of Dr. Carolyn Thomas, one of the founders of the program.  Carolyn passed away in January after a courageous two-year battle with cancer.  Carolyn’s passion for water quality was evident every time she ventured out on the lake.  You can see that demonstrated in this interview with John Carlin from a few years ago.

“One of the traditions of the College’s sampling trips is to count great blue herons, Carolyn’s spirit animal.  From now on when one is sighted we hope you will be reminded of Carolyn’s passion, her dedication to Smith Mountain Lake, and her love of citizen scientists like yourselves.”

Read more about the Smith Mountain Lake Association and Ferrum College Water Quality Monitoring Program here.

Ferrum College welcomes gifts made to the Carolyn Thomas Memorial Fund which supports students in the College’s Division of Natural Sciences. Please click here to make a gift in Thomas’s honor.