A group of scientists from six small Pennsylvania colleges have formed a coalition calling for more research on water quality and aquatic life in the Susquehanna River.
The group, the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies, formed in 2004 out of concern that while, the Chesapeake Bay cleanup was consuming a lot of dollars and attention, little was known about the river that gave the Bay 50 percent of its fresh water.
Baywide decisions were largely made in Annapolis, while Harrisburg was responsible for Pennsylvania regulations or programs. In the streams hours away from population centers, researchers were in the dark about stream quality. Without a baseline, it was hard to make management decisions about upgrading sewage treatment plants or permitting natural gas drilling. And it was also hard to determine whether targeted cleanups, such as those for acid mine drainage, were working.
"This is in our backyard," said Mel Zimmerman, a biology professor at Lycoming College in Williamsport who also runs that school's Clean Water Institute. "We wanted to preserve the best of what we can."
In addition to Lycoming College, the other schools participating include Bucknell University in Lewisburg; Kings College in Wilkes-Barre; Susquehanna University in Sellingsgrove; Bloomsburg University; and Lock Haven University
With only a few thousand students at each school and small environmental science programs, each institution was limited in what it could do on its own. And none could compete with powerhouses like Penn State University or University of Maryland, which bring in millions of dollars in research funds and house several environmental schools.
But together, "we're kind of feeding off each other," said Brian Mangan, who teaches environmental science and ecology at King's College. "It's been a really interesting amalgamation of people working to create some good data on the river."
The group includes hydrologists, geologists, soil scientists, biologists and specialists in computer mapping. A mercury analyzer at Susquehanna University helps to determine how much of the toxic substance is in river fish.
For years, the group has pushed for better data collection and monitoring on the river. Currently, they monitor 17 sites on the lower West Branch of the Susquehanna. They are also under contract with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to monitor the many unassessed waterways in the Susquehanna watershed - bodies of water that have either never been monitored or are not regularly checked for living resources. In the Pine Creek wateshed alone, Zimmerman and his students are tasked with assessing 150 waterways.
Last year, Zimmerman's students discovered a Class A trout stream in an area where a gas company wanted to drill. Because of their findings, the state Department of Environmental Protection told the company to drill elsewhere.
It is those types of management decisions that group members hope will be the result of their work.
"If something gets damaged, the gas company can say, well, how do you know it had any fish in it?" Zimmerman said.
Few scientists know more about the Susquehanna than Mangan, who has been monitoring the river for close to 30 years - first as a private consultant for a power company, then as an academic. Growing up in northeast Pennsylvania, Mangan said, the Susquehanna was "either an enemy that rose up on occasion to flood you, or it was a sewer."
But through his research, he was able to watch the river rebound. Large mayfly hatches returned, a sign of improved water quality. In time, he began to view the river as a great natural resource that needed protection.
Yet despite what he knows about the river, Mangan said, there's much more to learn. And with the pace of drilling quickening and the deforestation and water withdrawals that go with it increasing, Mangan said, the scientists are working hard to assemble a data set that can preserve what remains.
"With 30 years here, I can say there's so much we don't understand about how this river functions that it is almost laughable," he said. "We're not coming at this with any particular axe to grind. We're just presenting science in an objective, non-biased manner. We let the numbers speak for themselves."
Given the politics of both rivers and shale drilling, that can be an important distinction. In 2005, American Rivers named the Susquehanna River the most endangered river in the United States because of its many outdated sewage-treatment plants. In 2011, the river earned the unhappy distinction again because of the gas-drilling threats; much of the watershed overlays the valuable Marcellus Shale formation. Pennsylvania officials bristled both times at the designation, claiming that the river is hardly endangered.
In addition to their monitoring work, the group has secured $4.5 million in funding to build an environmental center at a dilapidated marina in Shikellamy State Park near Sunbury, PA. The group also organized a Marcellus Shale conference last year at Lycoming College that featured representatives from the gas industry as well as scientists.
Susan Obleski, communications director for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, said her agency partners with the group on a number of projects. The group helped the SRBC put together the first State of the Susquehanna report, which looked at water use, floods, sediment, nitrogen, phosphorus and other indicators of the river's health.
The SRBC has ramped up its monitoring efforts in the last two years, in part thanks to money from the gas industry. But with such a large river, Obleski said, the commission is happy to have more hands on deck.
"They're a great group," Obleski said, "Anytime you're giving students hands-on experience, that's a really good thing."