Scientists keeping watchful eye on river flow, levels and contaminants

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wwltv.com

Posted on May 18, 2011 at 9:32 PM

Maya Rodriguez / Eyewitness News

MORGAN CITY, La.-- Along the Atchafalaya River, hydrologist Paul Frederick and a team of scientists are looking below the surface of the water.

"This is the highest I have seen," Frederick said.

The group is just one of several teams, which have been mobilized across half a dozen states by the U.S. Geological Survey. It is an unprecedented effort to monitor the historic water flows stemming from a swollen Mississippi River.

"The changes that happen here will become a new baseline for further comparison in future flood events," said Alex Demas of the USGS.

Collecting the water samples: a 280-pound white capsule with a plastic bag attached inside. The device gets lowered into the Atchafalaya River at different depths, measuring everything from the height of the river to how fast the water is moving.

That information collected by the capsule is then supplemented with data collected by streamgages. The USGS has more than 250 streamgages spread out across Louisiana, not just in the major rivers like the Atchafalaya and Mississippi, but also in the tributaries connected to them.

"Over the past week, the flow has increased and the stage has increased," Frederick said. "Flow has increased roughly 30,000 cubic feet per second since our last visit a week ago."

The crucial readings are passed on to the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, who use the findings to make projections on rising waterways.

However, that is not the only thing the scientists are checking. They are also looking for chemicals, like pesticides and fertilizers, along with heavy metals, which may all be in the water-- with potentially more on the way, as it pours through the Morganza Spillway.

"We don't know yet what's going to happen with all of this new water, because the Morganza hasn't been open since 1973, so we're trying to figure out right now-- we're trying to get some base information-- so when that Morganza water comes down, we can see what changes," Demas said.

Any changes discovered may eventually end up downstream from Morgan City, as the Morganza water heads straight for the Gulf of Mexico.

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