Collecting and Analyzing Data on Groundwater Spring Makeup and Quality

Rockbridge County, Virginia

Featured image for the project, Collecting and Analyzing Data on Groundwater Spring Makeup and Quality

Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County, Va. Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program


Rockbridge County has a population of 36,000 and sits about 150 miles from Washington D.C. on the bottom of the Shenandoah Valley, between the Appalachians to the West and the Blue Ridge mountains to the East. The county is 24% public land, and as part of the watershed of Chesapeake Bay, water from the county flows into the Maury River, to the James River.

Rockbridge County’s delicate Karst topography impacts the area’s water. Karst formations are cavernous and therefore have high rates of permeability, resulting in less filtering of the water. Groundwater is polluted just as easily as surface streams, and given this geology, community concerns include water quality in wells and streams that might have run unimpeded from cattle pastures or Combined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and malfunctioning septic tanks that could leak directly into underground channels.

The Rockbridge County community’s strength lies in their knowledge and interest, from interns and professors at local universities to folks who have retired to the area that become interested in new fields while tapping into their professional backgrounds. 

There has already been a healthy amount of local water quality monitoring over the decades, mostly for e.coli, and a major Virginia Dept of Environmental Quality-led study on the Woods Creek watershed within the county was recently completed. A local group, Rockbridge Water Monitors, was formed and trained to do benthic and bacterial point source testing in 25+ streams moving forward, but there aren’t any current studies of the county’s springs. The community leaders do have have access to extensive testing data at 15-20 of the larger known springs in the county by a local professor, all of which is currently being catalogued online.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan III is being implemented and the goals for best management practices (BMPs) will be available to the county in December 2019. The springs study is the beginning of a groundwater assessment which will help in promoting BMPs.


The Project 

The community would like to focus on verifying spring locations, and collecting, consolidating, and analyzing new and existing data from those springs. Volunteers and university interns are willing and able to collect and document samples and measurements. There are 11 existing sources of springs data beginning in the 1930s.

Outputs for this project include:

  • Methods for collecting data from springs
  • Additions to a new database of historic data and an existing map
  • A report that explains to community leaders what the data shows

Eventually, beyond the scope of this project, the community would like to communicate this information to the community, increasing general understanding of water resources, connecting groundwater and local well and spring water quality, and helping to educate about local water and how it’s impacted by land use. Potentially, the community would be most affected by legislation in the form of an overlay district related to land use on karst terrain.

Project Team

Community Leads

(Photos coming soon!)

David Harbor is a Professor at Washington and Lee University, in the Department of Geology, and will serve as a translator alongside the scientific partner, as well as provide continuity to keep knowledge moving forward when the Thriving Earth Exchange project ends.

Jim Manley is Chair of the 50Ways Rockbridge-Environmental Committee and will serve as the main point of contact for the project, liaising with Thriving Earth Exchange and the scientific partner.

Sandra Stuart is the Natural Bridge Soil & Water Conservation District director and co-chair of RACC’s watershed committee, and will serve as the main coordinator for the project.

Barbara Walsh is the Executive Director of RACC, and will provide the resources of that organization to support the project (e.g. communications to the network to provide volunteers, office tools and services), as well as local knowledge and a personal background in hydrogeology.

The Rockbridge Area Conservation Council (RACC) has been a community leader in promoting the wise stewardship and the sustainable use of the county’s natural and cultural resources since 1976, and the 50Ways Rockbridge Environmental Committee was formed in 2017 to bring awareness to the community of the environmental issues facing the County as a whole.


Community Science Fellow


Cameron Dunn (he/him) lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is the Head of Support Operations at Vimeo, leading a team that creates shared resources and more efficient processes for an international group of support agents. Outside of work, he’s a registered wildlife rehabilitator, weekly karaoke participant, and considers himself a creative dabbler (which means he tries lots of things once then never again—RIP embroidery, stained glass, paper-cut portraits..).

Scientist Wanted

The team seeks a scientific partner(s) to develop collection and measurement methodology for volunteers, and to analyze and explain what the existing and resulting datasets show. The scientific partner will work with the team for the duration of the project, with the potential of a mutually agreed-upon second phase focused on the development of educational materials.

Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact that they can contribute to as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.

Desired skills and expertise:

  • Background in hydrology, specifically focused on the vulnerability of carbonate aquifers
  • Experience in public policy (a plus, not a must)
  • Experience with scientific water sampling and study design
  • Experience and/or desire to participate in volunteer training and education
  • Willingness to connect science to local concerns
  • Adept problem-solver and able to effectively convey results in written form
  • Ability to work with community leaders and other scientific partners if multiple are required
  • Remote engagement is OK — local, or knowledge of the local system, is a plus

Interested in volunteering? Apply now!


Volunteers are ready and available, so development of sampling methodology will begin as soon as possible. The project is expected to last approximately 1 year. The exact timeline will be established in partnership with the scientist.