A Day in the Life of a USGS Water Scientist

Science Center Objects

If you have to spend time in other people's shoes before judging them, you'd have to do a lot more than walk a mile to understand a USGS water scientist. For example, if you were Hydrologic Technician, or "Hydrotech," John Jastram, you would be perched 40 feet above a river as you made water-quality measurements from a swaying cable car. And if you were Hydrotech Karl Dydak, you would actually be in that river, gathering discharge data while balancing against the current on slippery rocks and an uneven bottom.

Getting Your Feet Wet—A Day in the Life of a USGS Water Scientist

This particular workday is a beautiful one, with temperatures in the upper sixties, a mostly clear sky, and a light breeze. It's about 10 a.m., and John and Hydrologist Trisha Johnson are preparing sampling equipment in their mobile lab, a USGS van parked close to the forested shore of the Rappahannock River, near Fredericksburg, VA.

Their day started at the USGS Virginia Water Science Center in Richmond, where they loaded the van and then drove the 50 or so miles here to USGS streamgage 01668000, part of the nationwide network of automated streamflow and water-level monitors. This location also includes a water-quality buoy that permanently resides in the river and automatically transmits measurements. However, John and Trisha are here to independently gather quality data, ensuring the accuracy of the information USGS produces.

From his fieldwork equivalent of an office chair, a plastic cooler inside the van, he gives her on-the-fly lessons about the equipment. Although she was once a hydrotech, too, Trisha left to earn a graduate degree in geological sciences. The degree makes her a hydrologist.

However, some things about the job have changed in the past three years. "We didn't have this sort of thing," she says, motioning to a PDA (personal digital assistant) enclosed in a water- and shock-resistant case. The PDA compiles water-quality data fed to it by a monitor that dangles in the water and measures temperature, specific conductance, pH, and turbidity.

After everything is set, John dons a life preserver and makes his way across a road and partway up a small hill to a very conspicuous metal tower. Running from the tower's peak to a bluff on the other side of the Rappahannock is a thick steel cable.

Hanging just above a platform on the tower is a metal basket, and it's from this "cable car" that John will take his measurements.

"Just climb on up" he says. Doing so is a minor exercise of contortion and balance, and the cable car rocks and bobs with the weight of its occupants. Into the car he hefts his gear, which consists of the PDA and monitor, a metal object that looks like a wrench, and a plastic bag containing a bucket with a plunger through its lid, two small bottles, a long rope attached to a round metal container, and some latex gloves. There isn't much room on this thing.

The cable dips as it reaches the center of the river, so gravity will get things going. John loosens the brakes, and the car glides through the trees and out toward the water.

The ride is actually quite smooth, though the lack of solid ground takes some getting used to. Just as the car is above the river's edge, John stops it at a point indicated by a black mark on the cable.

"It's marked every ten feet," he says. "We get measurements from several sections of the river so we can get an overall assessment of the water's quality."

He lowers the quality monitor into the water by its long cable and puts one of the plastic bottles into the metal container and lowers it down by the rope. He lets the bottle fill with water before reeling it back up to the car; the monitor will stay in the river, feeding data to the PDA. He slips on latex gloves and pours the bottle's contents into the plastic bucket.

"We wear the gloves to prevent contamination," he says. "This study requires measurements sensitive to parts per million, but sometimes they require parts per billion. For that, we have to use a Teflon bottle," he adds, motioning to the other bottle, which is more sanitary than plastic.

As he lets the car move farther out, a view of the surroundings opens up. The river wanders between forested bluffs, and the clear water reveals a streambed of dark rocks, sandy flats, and bluish-green vegetation. Between drifting clouds, the sun reflects off of the water and warms the rocky outcroppings dotting the surface.

Such a picture-perfect day seems enough to make this a great job, but John simply loves the outdoors. "I really enjoy being outside, even on the miserable days!"

Those miserable days might be the ones when, as he describes, the cable car is being pulled sideways at precarious angles by the howling wind and the river's tug on the heavier sampling equipment required in more turbulent water.

Stories about those events might go over well at a party. "Most people like to hear about my experiences on the water," he says. "The things I see and do sound 'fun.'"

"It's always exciting to do storm sampling," Trisha adds. "I like the intense pace and the pressure. One time I was in a creek during a storm, and the water was rising fast. All kinds of debris and trash were coming down the creek. The water was up to my mid-thigh. I looked down, and a huge black snake swam between my legs. That was a little unnerving, but I was so tired at that point, I just laughed it off."

Today, however, there are no slithering surprises, and it's literally smooth sailing as the cable car gently slides to the marker points. John makes notations on each location and periodically checks the PDA.

Once the car has passed the lowest point in the cable, gravity won't help out anymore. Hand over hand, John pulls the car to the other side of the river. However, when he is finished sampling and starts heading back to the tower, the ride eventually gets too steep for hands alone.

That's where the wrench-like object comes in-using it as a handle on the cable, John winches the car back toward its home, one bicep-busting pull at a time.

"Keeps me in shape," he says with a smile.

He briefly stops over the road to lower the equipment to Trisha, and after returning the car to the tower, he heads back to the van.

The van, which has several feet of counter space, shelving, and a small sink, looks like a miniature high-school science classroom.

John sits in the rear and, by using the plunger that runs through the lid of the bucket, begins to churn the samples, just like butter. This will more accurately represent what the water is like river-wide, he explains.

He then logs various amounts of the water into different containers and bottles, filtering some to analyze dissolved ingredients, adding acid to others for preservation, and running some through filters that collect chlorophyll. He does all of this carefully and consistently.

"We always follow set protocols," he says. "They make our science valuable and defensible."

The logged samples are placed on ice in the cooler. John and Trisha finish their paperwork and return to Richmond, where they deliver the samples to a laboratory, enter results into a computer at the office, and clean the van and equipment-for John, this is one of the more thankless parts of the job.

"I would make one hell of a dishwasher if my job here were to end!" he says.

Trisha echoes John's remarks and cites other undesirable duties such as working in steaming hot weather, examining herself for ticks after field work, and collecting excrement from wildlife, livestock, pets, and sewage treatment plants.

"I actually had to do that for a bacteria source tracking project," she says.

Meanwhile, down on the river, Karl Dydak has been preparing to gather discharge data, which will let him know how much water is actually flowing down the Rappahannock. He also started in Richmond and arrived here at about 10.

He is sporting a life preserver and dark brown waders over his clothes — these keep him warm and dry as he wades through the cool water.

He has strung a cord, which is marked like the cable, across the river to help him gather information at regular points.

Conducting water science from the water, however, is a bit different than doing so above it. The waders make walking on land difficult. Once in the water, things get downright awkward.

The pant legs suddenly seem to vacuum seal around the wearer's legs, and walking becomes twice as tough. The current causes unfamiliar signals to be sent to the brain about how to maintain balance, and that same river bottom that provided interesting views from the cable car is now providing every opportunity for a clumsy plunge into the water.

"You have to move at astronaut speed," Karl says as he picks his way across the water. His 15 years of experience show in his ability to negotiate the treacherous bottom, but he says that even he has fallen down.

Karl is using a wading rod, a metal pole about six-feet long, to assist his walk through the river. Atop this pole is a small box with a digital display; at the bottom of the pole and underwater is a current meter, which includes an impeller that looks like small windmill. The impeller and the box are connected by a wire, and Karl is recording what appears on the display.

He explains that the speed the impeller spins and depth at which it sits as the pole rests on the bottom tell him the discharge in that section. He repeats this process at several points.

"The wading measurement at the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg takes an hour and a half," he says. "Most wading measurements take half an hour to an hour."

Being outside for a while, however, is just fine by Karl.

"Working by yourself in the outdoors is appealing, as is working with your hands," he says. "There's a satisfaction that comes from repairing something or solving a problem."

After he has taken readings, he wades back out to retrieve the other end of the line. He then comes ashore and makes his way to a metal box that is topped with a solar panel and antenna and is sitting beneath the cable car tower.

This box houses a streamgage, a device that measures water depth via a pipe that runs to the river. The gage transmits that data real-time to a satellite, which sends it to the USGS National Water Information System. Karl's work often involves that data site.

"A typical day begins at the office with a check of our Web page to see that gages are working and sending back data that looks reasonable," he says. "A typical day starts early," he adds. "Traffic and heat are worse later in the morning."

Karl checks the depth readings the gage took while he was in the river getting his own measurements to make sure they coincide. Satisfied with the results, he closes the box and heads down to the truck he drove up from Richmond.

He spreads data sheets out over the truck's hood and notes a shift between his discharge measurements and those of the rating table, which projects discharge, but he says the change is consistent with other measurements made at that time of year and at that gage height.

"Technicians need a good reason to change a rating," he says. "Many of our ratings were changed after we measured runoff associated with Hurricane Isabel."

In addition to hurricanes, Karl deals with poison ivy, insects, cold weather, and more.

"We sometimes work in the kind of rain they have in cartoons," he says. "Every technician has a good snake-in-the-gage-house story," he adds.

After finishing up at the river, he heads back to the Richmond office and enters his results into a computer.

Today's work ends before 5 p.m.--an early day such as this one, however, makes up for the tiring hours water science sometimes demands.

"There is no typical day," John says. "Some days, I start at 6 a.m.; some days, 8 a.m. Some days I work eight hours; some days I work up to 16 hours. Some days are spent in the office working with data, working on equipment, or prepping in the lab. Other days, I am in the field sampling, servicing monitoring equipment, and conducting recon for new work. Other days, I do too many different things to list."

After work, each of these scientists could be doing a number of things, too. John enjoys hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, boating, and spending time with his wife. Trisha and her husband also like to camp and hike, as well as travel or just spend time at home or with friends. Karl could be working with his son's baseball team.

Of course, when they come back to work tomorrow, they could be somewhere else in Virginia, and their tasks might be entirely different. Wherever or whatever, it's the significance of their work that keeps them coming back for more.

"The most important thing the Survey does is our National Streamgaging Network," Karl says. "I feel good about supporting that."

John adds, "The work I am doing is very important for the efforts to improve the water-quality and the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay," into which the Rappahannock empties.

"As an environmentalist and a scientist, I feel the best way to achieve environmental change is through sound science," Trisha says.


Special thanks to Karl Dydak, John Jastram, Trisha Johnson, and Rich Young for their assistance and expertise.