Chris Jones (right) and Julie McGivern collect a zooplankton sample in Gunston Cove as part of the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center's wastewater monitoring project at George Mason University. (Donna Peterson/Special to The Washington Post)

Flushing: We all do it, mostly without any thought beyond the pipe leading away from our home. But if you follow what spirals out of sight down a toilet or household drain, the end of the line for that human wastewater is the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay for a large portion of Fairfax County residents. In the 1960s, the Potomac was green from the algae and bacteria of human sewage and storm runoff.

Piloting an open-top fishing boat out to designated monitoring locations, Chris Jones, the director of George Mason University’s Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC), monitors today’s wastewater as it re-emerges from pipes and rejoins natural space in Gunston Cove. The center has been working to clean up the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay since 1980.

“The main source,” Jones said, is “human waste. We’re not very good at getting everything out of our food or maybe there’s more nitrogen and phosphorus than we need. We excrete it, we flush it down the john. It ends up going into a treatment plant.”

And the treatment plant where most of Fairfax’s wastewater ends up is the Noman M. Coleman, Jr. Pollution Control Plant, where 45 million gallons of wastewater and stormwater is processed every day through a series of 25 million gallon tanks for treatment, which removes 99.9 percent of the pollutants before releasing the water into Pohick Creek, which flushes into Gunston Cove and then the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. 

The Coleman plant and Jones established a voluntary monitoring program in 1984, thought to be the only one of its kind in this region, to monitor the discharge from the plant. Over 30 years, Fairfax County has spent $2 million for monitoring studies.

“It’s really been a symbiotic relationship from the start,” said Jones. “Our focus is on the small critters, algae and aquatic plants,” indicators of nitrogen, phosphorus and chlorine in the water column from sewage.

George Mason University students Kristyn Moskey and Alex Grazian record water data in Gunston Cove as part of the PEREC project to monitor and minimize the impact of wastewater on the cove, the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. (Donna Peterson/Special to The Washington Post)

“It takes a long time to see changes and there are so many environmental impacts that have to be considered, so it takes many years to see trends and improvements,” said Elaine Schaeffer, lab director at the Coleman plant.

Jones attributes changes in the ecology of the cove to improvements at the Coleman plant.

“The sewage [has] a lot of nitrogen, phosphorus, going into the water column and that favors these microscopic plants called algae,” says Jones. “They interfere with the light reaching the larger plants and they’re snuffed out. 

“[The plants] were pretty much eliminated from the Potomac, and that’s bad for other things, like the fish and invertebrates because they use that as habitat,” said Jones. “But since about 2005, the plants have started to spread out and now they occupy roughly half of the cove…” 

Melding Jones’s results and the lab’s creates more informed conclusions and better decisions, said Schaeffer.  The collaboration has resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Partner designation, and also this year, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies recognizing the plant for 14 years of consecutive compliance with federal regulations.

George Mason PEREC program director Chris Jones checks water turbidity (clarity) in Gunston Cove between Fairfax and Prince William counties. (Donna Peterson/Special to The Washington Post)

“We talked about Virginia watersheds and how water flows into the Chesapeake Bay,” said Tigger Fraenckel, a sixth grader at Saunders Middle School.  “We used sand and rock to build a scale model of, like, from the top of a mountain to the bay.”

The B-WET program provides students with an authentic learning experience, says Joy Greene, the environmental science coordinator of Prince William County schools. The partnership has been recognized this year by the Virginia Mathematics & Science Coalition as a Program That Works.

“When students pick up a crayfish and they’re just in awe, that’s amazing,” said Greene. “We’re thrilled with the partnership, to reach so many students. It gives the students a chance to see careers, like park rangers, biologists, environmental engineers.”

Jones and PEREC hope to break ground soon on a $23 million center at Belmont Bay in Prince William County. The center will house laboratory and educational facilities, as well as a museum, free to the public.

Located right on the tidal Potomac, the center will provide expanded laboratory facilities, expand the research staff, and have a place to dock boats, eliminating the need to bring samples and boats back to the George Mason campus in Fairfax.

“We want to be of service to the community. We’re only limited by the fiscal resources we’re provided,” said Jones.