Water Lab helps GRDA fulfill “conservation and reclamation” mission

GRDA Lab Technician Roger Simmons (right) helps students complete a water sample analysis in the GRDA Water Quality Lab, located in the Ecosystems and Education Center in Langley. GRDA has partnered with Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma to supply the lab with equipment utilized by both GRDA personnel and student-interns from the universities.

Langley — It is only fitting that the windows of the Grand River Dam Authority’s Water Quality Laboratory open up to views of Grand Lake. After all, the lab exists because of those waters.

Located on the lower level of the GRDA Ecosystems and Education Center in Langley, the lab is a key tool for the everyday efforts of GRDA as it works to maintain a reputation as a good steward of the natural resources under its control. Those natural resources include 70,000 surface acres of Grand River waters, including Grand Lake, Lake Hudson and the W.R. Holway Reservoir.   

In operation since 2010, the lab’s focus is water quality research. GRDA partnered with both Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma to equip the lab with the tools necessary to do that research. Members of the GRDA Ecosystems Management Department man the lab, along with interns from the universities. They stay busy collecting samples, running tests and gathering the all-important data needed to determine what is happening with the waters of the Grand River system.

“This is really some exciting stuff,” said GRDA Lab Technician Roger Simmons, who spent two decades working in the laboratory at the GRDA Coal Fired Complex before his move to the Ecosystems Department. “We are doing a lot of research on the lakes right now.”

Broad Areas of Research
That research covers a broad area: nutrients, metals, bacteria and other characteristics of the water. According to Simmons, the state-of-the-art lab is equipped with most of the important components necessary to do this research and, with the assistance of the university interns; the manpower is abundant as well.

“Instead of waiting a week for results we will be able to have the results immediately,” said Simmons. “That’s one nice thing about the equipment we have now.”

Some components are even new to the lab since the 2011 blue green algae (BGA) outbreak on many Northeast Oklahoma lakes. During that stretch in late June and early July, the GRDA Ecosystems Team stayed busy collecting and analyzing samples on a daily basis. 

“During the early part of the BGA outbreak we were doing our own sampling and testing, but also working with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and a Florida-based lab,” said GRDA Ecosystems Management Superintendent Dr. Darrell Townsend. “It was important to have as many experts as possible looking at these samples.”

GRDA also consulted with the United States Army Corps of Engineers during the BGA outbreak; that agency had previously dealt with major BGA presence in a Kansas lake. 

According to Townsend, the Florida lab had capabilities that GRDA did not have in Langley. However, the lab on the shores of Grand Lake is starting to catch up. In fact, Simmons said, GRDA expects the lab to become certified for nutrient testing later this year.

Lab Certification
“Certification means that when I run a test, or when [GRDA Biologist Sam Ziara] runs a test, it’s right,” said Simmons. “It means

GRDA Ecosystems Management's Brent Davis (left) and Sam Ziara gather water samples from Grand Lake during the summer of 2011. GRDA has established 12 permanent monitoring sites on the lake, which are currently sampled on a monthly basis and analyzed in the GRDA Water Quality Lab, located in the Ecosystems and Education Center in Langley.

we don’t need another lab to verify for us. However, on some of our tests, we will still be getting a second opinion.”

The certification is administered through the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ), as part of the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (NELAC). The lab must run a series of blind tests to gain certification. Once it is achieved, the lab will be required to run and pass these blind tests twice a year to maintain certification. 

“Lab certification adds an important level of credibility to our research and acts as another level of checks and balances on the type of data we are producing ensuring that our results are reliable, accurate, and free of contamination,” said Townsend.

However, before certification, ODEQ will perform an inspection of the lab. Number of tests run annually, log book accuracy, even accuracy of thermometers in the freezers are just some things that will be reviewed during the inspection.

“There is nothing wrong with that,” added Simmons. “They want to know if we are running the tests properly; how we run them; and they even want to know how we clean our glassware.”

While nutrient certification should happen in 2012, Simmons added that the lab will work to achieve metals testing certification in 2013.

“Certification indicates to our fellow resource agencies that our lab practices have met the state standards for reliability, accuracy, with all the proper quality assurance and quality control measures in place,” added Townsend.

Permanent Sampling Sites
As part of the new GRDA Lakes Advisory System, which is being introduced during summer 2012, the Ecosystems Department has established 12 permanent testing sites on Grand Lake, eight on Lake Hudson and three on the W.R. Holway Reservoir. The sites will have GPS coordinates to insure the locations remain accurate, and GRDA will draw samples from these locations on a regular basis; once a month during the winter months and twice a month in the summer. If conditions warrant, samples would be taken weekly.

Ziara will also be taking a water profile reading at every site with a “hydro lab.” This is an electronic device that analyzes the water column and can gather data at one meter intervals on parameters like water temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, pH, turbidity and others. Ultimately, it’s another tool in GRDA’s efforts to arm itself with important water information.

“We should get a tremendous amount of data and will be able to see the trends over the next three to five years,” said Simmons. “People like Dr. Townsend and Sam can analyze that data and tell us what it all means.

For many years prior to the creation of the GRDA Ecosystems Department, groups like the all-volunteer Grand Lake Water Watch program – working in conjunction with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) – also worked to gather important Grand Lake data.

While all that data and sampling is important, just the fact that there is lab focused on the waters of the Grand River system sets this lab apart from others and puts GRDA waters at the front of the line.

“We could always send off these samples to other labs, but when we do that, our sample would not necessarily be the top priority,” stressed Simmons. “Here, testing the waters of GRDA lakes is the priority in this lab.”

Beyond the lab, across the region
Of course, GRDA’s water monitoring efforts can only diagnose water conditions. Maintaining a healthy lake system, preventing and solving water quality issues requires the assistance of many others across the region.

That is especially true along the Grand River System because most of its watershed lies in other states, including Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas. To help bring all these states and their resource agencies together, GRDA has hosted the four-state watershed conference in the “Grand Hall” of the Ecosystems Building, adjacent to the laboratory. Conferences were held in April 2010 and again just last month.

“The conference is a chance to reinforce an ongoing dialogue with other groups all across the watershed,” said Townsend. GRDA actually the first conference on the the same day the Ecosystems Center was opened to the public.

Going forward
When he thinks about the lab’s future role, Townsend believes it holds much potential as a tool for the entire region and his goal is to take it to new heights for the good of the watershed.

“We’d like for our ecosystem water quality research lab to play a significant role in addressing some of the adverse environmental issues threatening the integrity of watersheds in the 21st century,” said Townsend. “It serves as the foundation of our long-term partnerships with the regions top scientists from multiple disciplines.

This type of structured cooperation, added Townsend, maximizes the region’s resources and facilitates necessary dialogue among the states with a vested interest in conservation and restoration of our shared watersheds.

For the GRDA Ecosystems team, everything ultimately circles back to the responsibility given to GRDA when the agency was born in 1935: to be a conservation and reclamation district for the waters of the Grand River.

“These waters represent a vital resource for thousands of people, as well as wildlife and fisheries,” added Townsend. “Water supply, recreational opportunities, economic impact; all these things depend on these waters. So, through our work in the lab and our other ecosystems efforts, we want to do all we can to care for them.”

Headquartered in Vinita, GRDA is Oklahoma’s state-owned electric utility; fully funded by revenues from electric and water sales instead of taxes. Directly or indirectly, GRDA’s low-cost, reliable; electricity serves nearly 500,000 homes in Oklahoma and stretches into 75 of 77 counties in the state. At no cost to Oklahoma taxpayers, GRDA also manages 70,000 surface acres of lakes in the state, including Grand Lake, Lake Hudson and the W.R. Holway Reservoir. Today, GRDA’s 500 employees continue to produce the same “power for progress” that has benefited the state for 75 years

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GRDA Ecosystems Management Director Dr. Darrell Townsend (left) and Drew Holt, with the Elk River & Shoal Creek Watershed Management Planning Group, answer questions from participants at the 2012 Grand Lake Watershed Conference, held at the GRDA Ecosystems and Education Center April 26 and 27.