Clemson scientists helping U.S. National Whitewater Center manage water resources
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — A team of Clemson University scientists recently conducted an onsite visit with representatives of the U.S. National Whitewater Center to discuss potential tactics to improve and maintain the water quality of the outdoor facility’s manmade whitewater river.
The U.S. National Whitewater Center spans 1,100 acres and offers a variety of outdoor activities, such as rock-climbing, zip lines, rope courses and mountain-biking. The park’s whitewater river has been used for Olympic training and qualifying trials. But after the tragic death of 18-year-old Lauren Seitz of Westerville, Ohio, due to an infection with the amoeba Naegleria fowleri, the park temporarily suspended its whitewater-related activities. Seitz rafted at the facility in early June. Since then, the locally owned and operated facility has reached out to several environmental consulting firms for advice.
Although the amoeba is commonly found in warm-water environments, such as lakes and rivers, only 37 reported infections have occurred in the U.S. in the past 10 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recreational water activities come with many inherent risks. During the same 10-year period, there were more than 34,000 drowning deaths in the U.S.
While waterborne disease is certainly one risk factor, water safety is a more encompassing issue that has been well-addressed by the Charlotte facility.
“Safety throughout the park is their No. 1 priority, and they’re definitely intent on maintaining a water quality management program that is state of the art,” said Jeffery Allen, director of the South Carolina Water Resources Center at Clemson University. “Water quality management is an ongoing process that requires adjustments to changing environments and climate conditions. So we’re going to be thinking about several potential options and then come up with a long-term proposal. If they like the proposal and agree to fund it, then we’ll develop and help implement a detailed plan of action.”
Current management practices at the facility have included weekly water quality monitoring and yearly draining of the system in the fall, followed by cleaning and disinfection of the cement-lined structure. It has then been refilled in the spring with municipal water, which is regularly treated onsite with a combination of filters and UV light designed to capture and kill microorganisms. However, environmental conditions, such as those that develop during the extremely warm weather in summer, can limit the effectiveness of such systems.
After receiving extensive advice from consultants, National Whitewater Center officials plan to hyper-chlorinate the retained water from the river and then dechlorinate it before finally draining it. After viewing the site, Allen and Clemson colleagues John Rodgers, Tamara McNealy and Derrick Phinney agreed that this plan was viable and safe for the surrounding environment.
“The U.S. National Whitewater Center is a unique facility and a regional treasure for the Charlotte area, so the number of people from far and wide that access the facility has grown, as has the challenge to minimize water-associated risks,” said Rodgers, professor and director of the ecotoxicology program in the forestry and environmental conservation department.
“The initial proposed action has focused on a plan to deal with the existing water and then to put new safeguards into place as soon as possible. Clemson University has had considerable experience with similar situations and looks forward to working with the Whitewater Center’s personnel to provide solutions for the present and future that are scientifically and environmentally sound while also being economically viable and socially acceptable.”
Once the park addresses the immediate water concerns, the next step will be to come up with a long-term plan to adapt its water management plan to current environmental concerns and conditions. The Clemson team is considering several options, including ways to introduce low-level residual chlorine into the water to kill undesired organisms.
“A newer concept in water quality management involves surface treatments instead of — or in addition to — water treatment,” said McNealy, an associate professor in biological sciences. “Algae, amoebae and bacteria attach to surfaces and set up a home base. From there, they replicate and are protected from disinfectants. Preventing them from attaching to the surface in the first place can significantly aid in keeping their numbers low from the beginning.”
The pressure being put on water resources is mounting every day. These challenges are driven by the need for clean drinking water, energy production, agriculture, wildlife and recreation. Many outdoor activities are directly dependent on these water resources.
“This is why it’s important for us to be good stewards of our natural resources,” said Phinney, a Clemson Extension forestry agent and longtime natural resources professional. “We have to find the balance between ecosystem management, economics and meeting society’s needs. By making sound management decisions, we can care for our water proactively and help protect it for future generations.”
The South Carolina Water Resources Center serves as a liaison between the U.S. Geological Survey, the university community and the water resources constituencies across South Carolina. The center acts as a conduit for information necessary in the resource management decision-making arena as well as the water policy arena of the state.