Nitrates, pH and… dead bodies?! Week 2

Last week was the first time I was able to participate in field work with Dr. Masicello and Solana. The three of us met early at 7:00am on campus to grab all the gear and head out the bayous so we could collect water samples.

Our first stop was along Buffalo Bayou under a bridge. We parked near a very nice restaurant that sits on the bayou and walked quite a ways down to get to the water. Passing by the restaurant and all of the beautiful landscape was a bit eye-opening for me. I’ve lived in Houston a long time and thought of  Buffalo Bayou as a historic but not so nice body of water that happens to run through downtown. Thanks to the work of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, much of the Bayou is now rather nice. Miles of paved walkways, lots of landscaping, beautiful art pieces here and there, restaurants… we even passed a couple having what looked to be there engagement pictures taken with the bayou in the background.

Anyway, we made our way off the beaten path more than once to collect samples. We followed this same procedure each time: First, we collected a sample in a large plastic bottle. We followed the chemist’s ritual and washed out the bottle three times before filling it fully with our sample. We then placed a multiparameter in the flow of the bayou and waited several minutes. The meter measured key parameters including pH, ORP (oxidizing reducing potential), conductivity, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, ammonium, chloride, nitrate, and temperature. After writing down our exact GPS location and noting the measurements from the meter in our handy-dandy notebook (Blue’s Clues reference for you 90’s kids), we headed back to the car where we prepared samples by pushing the water through 0.2-micron filters. We all took turns using a caulk gun to push the water through the syringe, pass the filter, and into the collection bottles. It’s tricky to put just the right amount of pressure on the syringe so the water will pass through the filter, otherwise, the filter goes flying off! The caulk gun was a lifesaver.

Collecting a water sample from Buffalo Bayou.
Writing everything down in our Handy-Dandy notebook!
The multiparameter
Using the caulk gun to help push the water through the 0.2-micron filter.
0.2-micron filters – the white one is unused and clean, the brown one is after we filter Buffalo Bayou water.


^^^^ Cool video of the two bayous merging together!

We followed this process at four different locations. On our second stop under a bridge near Allen’s Landing, we were approached by two security guys driving in a golf cart. They first asked us what we were doing and after we explained, they regretfully informed us that it was a good possibility that a dead body could be floating by any minute! Say what?! Sadly, a person had fallen in upstream near a dog park and drown. Knowing this tidbit of info made the rest of our sample collection interesting, to say the least. At one point, we all were on heightened alert because we could see something large and black which stuck slightly up out of the water floating our way. Of course, my mind when to a clothed body and that was the shirt I was seeing sticking up. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a large cushion-like pillow – whew!

The samples we collected were put in an ice chest and were brought back to the lab in the Keith-Weiss building. Solana will prepare the samples further and place them into several different machines which you will get to see this week on the round robin lab rotation. One machine will test for ion chromatography, chloride, phosphate, nitrate, and sulfate. Another machine with test levels of metals. The final machine will test for the isotopic signature of the water (meaning we can tell where the water actually came from – was it from the northwest or northeast regions of America or even Canada?).

I’m looking forward seeing everyone this week in our round-robin tour!


2 thoughts on “Nitrates, pH and… dead bodies?! Week 2”

  1. Lived in Houston for about 3 years. Moved away almost 9 years ago and still miss those bayous. However, the thought of a dead body passing by would have scared me. Great blog and continue the great work.

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