Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies/Unassessed Waters Project (SRHCES)

Dr. Mel Zimmerman
Professor of Biology
Lycoming College
Williamsport, PA 17701

zimmer@lycoming.edu

Initiative Description and Primary Objectives 

The Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies (SRHCES) is a unique collaboration of scientists and students from six regional colleges and universities along the Susquehanna River working together to:

  •  Provide a non-political resource for science and information about environmental issues related to the 444 mile Susquehanna River Watershed
  •  Engage in educational and research projects relating to the natural resources of the Susquehanna River watershed, including ecosystem and human health impacts and economic viability, and
  • Create partnerships that connect post-secondary students and faculty at institutions in the Susquehanna heartland region with local communities, governmental and non-governmental agencies and environmental groups.

The uniqueness of the SRHCES and its six member institutions (Bloomsburg University, Bucknell University, King’s College, Lock Haven University, Lycoming College and Susquehanna University) is the ability to consolidate the varied scientific resources of its membership for collaboration and partnering with groups with common interests, including The Chesapeake Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy, Geisinger Health System and watershed associations.

One such partnership engages members with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission’s (PFBC) Unassessed Waters Initiative. The initiative leverages the talent of undergraduate and graduate students at SRHCES member schools and other local educational institutions to inform the public and state regulators regarding the water quality and the status of wild trout populations in thousands of previously unassessed streams throughout Pennsylvania.SRHCES students1

Native, wild brook trout are one of Pennsylvania’s most precious natural resources 

Pennsylvania has over 45,000 waterways, mostly headwater streams, many in pristine locations. A growing number of these waterways, however, are under stress from the shale gas drilling activities associated with a gas-rich geological formation known as the Marcellus Shale. The PFBC is the state entity responsible for monitoring and protecting aquatic life in these streams; the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is the state agency responsible for water quality. In 2010 PFBC had scientific data on only 3,000 of the state’s 45,000 waterways.and the centerpiece of important landscape conservation efforts. The health of the native trout in the many headwater streams serves as a barometer for ecosystem health and any changes are often influenced by commercial, residential and agricultural encroachment. Vigilance and monitoring are essential environmental safeguards.

SRHCES testingIn the context of very rapid Marcellus Shale drilling activities, PFBC and DEP began an aggressive effort to visit more waterways and gather data on the subject streams’ aquatic life, with a special focus on documenting those steams with wild trout populations. Biologists gathered information on water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, as well as fish biomass. One of the effort’s primary objectives was to better understand the threats to as-yet unassessed wild trout waters. This information is necessary so that regulators can make informed judgments regarding the issuance of drilling permits, as well as permits allowing the siting of and construction of gas pipelines. Without such information, the regulators have limited data with which to make fully informed decisions regarding proper permit conditions required to protect water quality and the trout populations.

In 2010, PFBC engaged SRHCES members in this “pilot” project to expand efforts to examine previously unassessed streams.   After two days of training on protocols, teams of students supervised by faculty began the field work. Lycoming and King’s college teams were each asked to assess 20 streams, but both exceeded that goal. Their work, combined with the work done by PFBC staff, resulted in the assessment of 310 streams that first year, 99 were found to support naturally-reproducing brown and native brook trout and were evaluated for a designation that would provide a higher level of protection. 

The PFBC analyzes the data from a stream, calculates an estimated biomass and classifies the stream based on the type of fish present and the amount of biomass found. The designation of a stream as a “Wild Trout Stream” has special significance and is considered ‘exceptional value’ by DEP and is entitled to the highest level of protection by DEP and the strictest environmental safeguards.

Data collected by Lycoming College’s team was used almost immediately by DEP during review of a stream crossing permit for a pipeline. The college data documented the stream in question to be a Wild Trout Stream, thereby requiring the company to take added precautions to meet permitting standards.

The second year of the program was expanded to engage as participants 10 academic institutions, including additional SRHCES members Susquehanna and Lock Haven universities, as well as and conservation groups. The experience gained by Lycoming and King’s in year one was used as the model. Year two results were impressive. For example, Susquehanna University’s teams examined over 80 streams and found 64 having trout; Lycoming teams cataloged 96 streams with over one-half having native trout. In addition, while sampling, students also conducted benthic macroinvertebrate surveys, algae sampling and standard water quality testing.

In the third year, concluded in the fall of 2012, 15 groups participated in the field assessments. SRHCES members that provided their students with service learning opportunities through this program included: Lycoming College, supervised by Dr. Mel Zimmerman; King’s College, supervised by Dr. Brian Mangan; Lock Haven University, supervised by Dr. Steve Seiler; and Susquehanna University, under the direction of Dr. Jon Niles. In total during year three, almost 1,000 streams were assessed with 55-60 percent holding trout.

SRHCES trout

Key Academic Disciplines 

Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Studies

Key Partner Organizations and Individuals 

Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies

Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds

Lycoming College and Dr. Mel Zimmerman

King’s College and Dr. Brian Mangan

Susquehanna University and Dr. Jon Niles

Lock Haven University, Dr. Fred Seiler

Chesapeake Conservancy

Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission and Bob Webber

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Initiative History and Champions 

Project is an outgrowth of SRHCES’s ongoing partnership with PFBC , The Chesapeake Conservancy, The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds and other environmental organizations in providing a non-political resource for ecosystem research on streams in northeastern and north-central Pennsylvania.

Distinctiveness and Strategic Significance of the Initiative 

A large portion of Pennsylvania is underlain by Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale. Recent advances in technology and changes in natural resource markets have made drilling these shales more cost effective. There has been a dramatic increase in drilling activity in Pennsylvania over the past three years. The Unassessed Waters Initiative is having a significant impact in providing state agencies with data for decision makers relating to this emerging industry. In addition, this added vigilance in the Susquehanna Watershed assists efforts of the Chesapeake Conservancy and National Park Service to protect the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay as one ecosystem.

Measurable Effectiveness of the Initiative 

In 2010 a total of 310 streams were sampled as part of this initiative. One-third of these streams had wild trout and were evaluated for a designation that would provide a higher level of protection.

SRHCES students2SRHCES members have assessed over 800 headwater streams over the past three summers. More than 10% have been designated at the highest level--as Wild Trout Streams. In addition, baseline data on these streams going forward will be used to monitor any changes in trout populations or other changes in the stream’s ecosystem.

Transferability of the Initiative 

All data accumulated and methods of operation used by the SRHCES from the ongoing Unassessed Streams Project are available to serve as a model for similar efforts elsewhere. Team leaders are available for consultation and progress reports are presented at the Annual Susquehanna River Symposium held each fall at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA.

The Initiative’s Ability to Endure 

While indications are that this project will continue to be a priority of PFBC going forward and, with this commitment, is the interest of members of the SRHCES to remain an active partner for several basic reasons: 1.) This project fits the mission of SRHCES and the expertise of many of its scientists; and 2.) This project provides a vital service learning experience for students.

There is an additional overriding need for this project to endure: The unassessed headwaters in northeastern and northcentral Pennsylvania and the current good health of the native trout population provide a rationale for broader landscape conservation projects within these regions as well serving as a barometer for any changes that potentially may adversely impact the Susquehanna River or the Chesapeake Bay.

Engagement Strategies 

The evolving Marcellus Shale industry and its potential impact on ecosystem and human health highlight the importance of the SRHCES’s monitoring in impacted areas and provide opportunities for additional partnerships. Human health studies related to Marcellus Shale are currently being planned by a coalition of health care providers, led by Geisinger Health System. SRHCES stands ready to be a resource for this effort.