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Scientific Investigations Report 2009-5085

Prepared in cooperation with East Tennessee Natural Gas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Continuous Turbidity Monitoring in the Indian Creek Watershed, Tazewell County, Virginia, 2006–08

By Douglas L. Moyer and Kenneth E. Hyer


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Thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines are installed annually in the United States. These pipelines commonly cross streams, rivers, and other water bodies during pipeline construction. A major concern associated with pipelines crossing water bodies is increased sediment loading and the subsequent impact to the ecology of the aquatic system. Several studies have investigated the techniques used to install pipelines across surface-water bodies and their effect on downstream suspended-sediment concentrations. These studies frequently employ the evaluation of suspended-sediment or turbidity data that were collected using discrete sample-collection methods. No studies, however, have evaluated the utility of continuous turbidity monitoring for identifying real-time sediment input and providing a robust dataset for the evaluation of long-term changes in suspended-sediment concentration as it relates to a pipeline crossing.

In 2006, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with East Tennessee Natural Gas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, began a study to monitor the effects of construction of the Jewell Ridge Lateral natural gas pipeline on turbidity conditions below pipeline crossings of Indian Creek and an unnamed tributary to Indian Creek, in Tazewell County, Virginia. The potential for increased sediment loading to Indian Creek is of major concern for watershed managers because Indian Creek is listed as one of Virginia's Threatened and Endangered Species Waters and contains critical habitat for two freshwater mussel species, purple bean (Villosa perpurpurea) and rough rabbitsfoot (Quadrula cylindrical strigillata). Additionally, Indian Creek contains the last known reproducing population of the tan riffleshell (Epioblasma florentina walkeri). Therefore, the objectives of the U.S. Geological Survey monitoring effort were to (1) develop a continuous turbidity monitoring network that attempted to measure real-time changes in suspended sediment (using turbidity as a surrogate) downstream from the pipeline crossings, and (2) provide continuous turbidity data that enable the development of a real-time turbidity-input warning system and assessment of long-term changes in turbidity conditions.

Water-quality conditions were assessed using continuous water-quality monitors deployed upstream and downstream from the pipeline crossings in Indian Creek and the unnamed tributary. These paired upstream and downstream monitors were outfitted with turbidity, pH (for Indian Creek only), specific-conductance, and water-temperature sensors. Water-quality data were collected continuously (every 15 minutes) during three phases of the pipeline construction: pre-construction, during construction, and post-construction. Continuous turbidity data were evaluated at various time steps to determine whether the construction of the pipeline crossings had an effect on downstream suspended-sediment conditions in Indian Creek and the unnamed tributary. These continuous turbidity data were analyzed in real time with the aid of a turbidity-input warning system. A warning occurred when turbidity values downstream from the pipeline were 6 Formazin Nephelometric Units or 15 percent (depending on the observed range) greater than turbidity upstream from the pipeline crossing. Statistical analyses also were performed on monthly and phase-of-construction turbidity data to determine if the pipeline crossing served as a long-term source of sediment.

Results of this intensive water-quality monitoring effort indicate that values of turbidity in Indian Creek increased significantly between the upstream and downstream water-quality monitors during the construction of the Jewell Ridge pipeline. The magnitude of the significant turbidity increase, however, was small (less than 2 Formazin Nephelometric Units). Patterns in the continuous turbidity data indicate that the actual pipeline crossing of Indian Creek had little influence of downstream water quality; conversely, these data indicate upland runoff from the construction right-of-way was the primary source of turbidity detected in Indian Creek. Results from the analysis of continuous turbidity data collected during the three construction phases from the unnamed tributary indicate that the pipeline crossing did not adversely alter long-term water-quality conditions. Turbidity data collected during the active construction of the pipeline crossing through the unnamed tributary indicate that short-term turbidity increases did occur downstream; however, these increases were shown to be minimal compared to the turbidity values measured during natural runoff events.

First posted April 21, 2009

For additional information contact:
Douglas L. Moyer
USGS Virginia Water Science Center
1730 East Parham Road
Richmond, VA 23228

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Suggested citation:

Moyer, D.L., and Hyer, K.E., 2009, Continuous turbidity monitoring in the Indian Creek watershed, Tazewell County, Virginia, 2006–08: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5085, 42 p.




Methods of Investigation

Water-Quality Patterns in Indian Creek and the Unnamed Tributary


Summary and Conclusions


References Cited


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