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Quenching the need for water quality data in West Virginia

A new portal created at West Virginia University is increasing access to surface and groundwater water quality data from shale gas regions around the state to inform stakeholders about trends in water quality.  

Shikha Sharma
Shikha Sharma

The West Virginia Water Quality Impact Portal allows people to investigate water quality in shale gas regions of West Virginia. It contains data for more than 1.3 million surface and ground water samples from 14 counties where most Marcellus Shale gas development has occurred.

Funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the portal’s data was gathered from federal and state agencies, including the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Geological Survey Water Science Center, as well as local nonprofit organizations.  

"We hope to reach out to teachers, local community members, watershed groups, state regulatory agencies and anyone who is interested in learning more about issues related to water quality in West Virginia,” said Professor of Geology Shikha Sharma. “The map viewer allows for quick visualization of monthly average water quality trends that could potentially be used by environmental groups, community planners or even regulators to identify locations that may benefit from remediation or increased monitoring activities.”  

The portal allows users to explore, analyze and visualize surface and groundwater quality data in relation to shale gas development as well as watersheds and types of land use.

Rachel Yesenchak
Rachel Yesenchak

The development of the portal was led by Sharma, geology doctoral student Rachel Yesenchak and West Virginia GIS Technical Center’s Maneesh Sharma and Yibing Han.  

“Anyone can use the portal. The creation of user-friendly web portals that are intuitive and accessible are essential for creating transparency and informing the public about environmental matters,” Yesenchak said. “We hope to enhance public understanding of water quality as it relates to energy development.”  

Yesenchak collected and prepared data for the portal and also performed statistical analysis for the story maps.  

“Rachel has played an instrumental role in this project in preparing data to be consumed through the web-based application,” Sharma said. “In addition, she has helped design online teaching exercises centered around the web portal.”

Yesenchak chose WVU for her doctoral studies specifically to conduct research with Sharma. They have collaborated on water quality and GIS mapping research since she arrived on campus in fall 2017.

“I chose WVU largely because I wanted to work with Dr. Sharma. I was impressed with her research, which seeks to address issues related to the nexus of energy development and the environment. I appreciate a balanced approach that considers all sides of an issue,” Yesenchak said. “When Dr. Sharma told me about this project she had in the works, I immediately wanted to be a part of it. My experience working with her has been entirely positive. She has been a great mentor and has helped me develop my research and writing skills while providing a supportive environment for learning and growing as a scientist.”

In her own research, Yesenchak evaluates surface water quality in relation to shale gas drilling and other forms of energy development in West Virginia.  

“My research combines geochemistry with geospatial data analysis, and the portal ties directly into that work,” she said. “I have used the aggregated water quality data set that was compiled for the portal in my research. The results of my research will continue to be formatted into story maps that can be accessed through the portal.”  

Yesenchak has been interested in water quality issues and water conservation for as long as she can remember.

“I used to sing the ‘Don’t Waste Water’ song from Sesame Street while brushing my teeth. Clean, available water is a necessary component for life, so it just makes sense to want to be involved in keeping our waterways healthy,” she said. “When I first took a mandatory introduction to GIS course during undergrad, I honestly thought I was going to hate it. But then I saw how useful it could be for not only environmental analyses but analyses in almost any field, and I immediately decided to take more GIS classes. The skills are transferrable, too, so it has opened up a lot of career possibilities.”

After graduation, Yesenchak aspires to work either as a science policy adviser or for a state or federal environmental agency.  

“WVU is helping me prepare for these career paths by offering a variety of environmental and policy-related classes and science communication workshops. I’ve also had the opportunity to work on a project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” she said. “I am currently working at the West Virginia GIS Technical Center where I am gaining technical GIS experience while working on other state and federally funded projects.”