Prompted by concerns over expanding natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania, the state’s watershed-based environmental groups are moving beyond education, restoration and political advocacy by collecting rigorous water quality data on the streams they protect.
“We’ve been around since the late ‘90s and we’ve done a lot of projects and a lot of education, but we’ve never really done any proactive stream monitoring,” said Patricia Miller, executive director of the Jacobs Creek Watershed Association. “There haven’t been as many grants available.”
But that’s changing. State agencies, foundations and other organizations are increasingly funding grassroots efforts to watch for changes in water quality in streams near drilling sites and gather baseline data in watersheds where drillers haven’t yet moved in.
Based in Mt. Pleasant, Penn., the Jacobs Creek Watershed Association is one of several groups partnering in the Laurel Highlands Marcellus Monitoring Project. The project is coordinated by the Mountain Watershed Association which focuses on the Indian Creek and Youghiogheny River watersheds. Their goal is to establish baseline water quality data for area streams.
So far, the project has more than 60 Solinst LTC Levelogger Junior water level loggers in streams throughout adjacent watersheds in southwest Pennsylvania.
“Some are in headwaters, some are above drilling sites, some are below drilling sites,” said Carla Ruddock, the Mountain Watershed Association’s field technician. “Some of the sites we’re using to collect baseline data before drilling has even come into the region.”
For groups on the lookout for drilling impacts, the parameter of choice is specific conductivity which the data loggers measure every fifteen minutes. At sites near drilling operations, Ruddock said they’re graphing the data and looking for peaks.
“If those peaks are four times higher than normal conductivity at similar flow, we’re filing a complaint with the state Department of Environmental Protection for them to go out and investigate what’s happening.”
Before Pennsylvania’s watershed groups were watching their waterways for impacts from natural gas drilling, they were dealing with the effects of another form of fossil fuel extraction: coal mining.
Pennsylvania’s steel industry created a high demand for coke, an ingredient in steel manufacturing created by heating coal.
“This region of Pennsylvania had a lot of coal, so in the late 1800s coal mining was very big in this area,” Miller said. “A lot of those mines have been abandoned now, and we have to to deal with the effects of that, which is a lot of mine drainage.”
Water draining from abandoned coal mines is often acidic and can render streams lifeless. Both the Mountain Watershed Association and Jacobs Creek Watershed Association have led projects to install treatment systems at abandoned mines.
The Jacobs Creek watershed’s connection to the steel industry runs deeper than its abandoned mines. The watershed is also the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick, founder of a coke manufacturing company and chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company.
Frick’s business partner, Andrew Carnegie, founded the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 1895. Today, the museum’s Powdermill Nature Preserve is helping with the Laurel Highlands Marcellus Monitoring Project.
Other partner groups include the Loyalhanna Watershed Association, Conemaugh Valley Conservancy and the Somerset Conservation District.
“It is a collaboration of all these organizations,” Ruddock said. “It’s a nice regional approach. It’s nice to see all these groups working together for the same goal.”