Good Life

Focus on Research: Penn State partnership could paint clearer picture of Pa. streams

The Trout Unlimited media tour visits an active Marcellus shale well along Limbaugh Road in the Tiadaghton State Forest.
The Trout Unlimited media tour visits an active Marcellus shale well along Limbaugh Road in the Tiadaghton State Forest. CDT file photo

Penn State researcher Jennifer Williams scooped some water from Black Moshannon Creek as the cool, clear stream rushed past her waders.

The water babbled on while Williams filtered, labeled and packaged the sample for the trip back to her lab at Penn State. There she’ll watch for potential environmental impacts, like from the Marcellus Shale gas wells that dot the surrounding hillsides.

Williams’ research helps paint a picture of water quality in the stream, good news for the many anglers and visitors of Black Moshannon State Park who visit regularly.

But the picture is fuzzier in many other parts of the state — there simply aren’t enough researchers like Williams to monitor all of Pennsylvania’s streams, creeks and rivers.

To address this, Penn State scientists are developing a new plan that calls for volunteers — citizen scientists — who will fill in the gaps and document these waterways as they are today.

“I think monitoring water quality is worthwhile for our state,” said Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State. “But with limited time, money and resources, we need volunteers.”

Brantley is working with Trout Unlimited and its network of volunteers on the new project, aimed at supplying scientists with valuable background data that can be used as a benchmark to compare against future change.

Some worry that change will come in the form of environmental impacts caused by the extensive development of the Marcellus Shale gas industry in the state. Others point out that the extent and frequency of such impacts are small and rare.

“I think one of the problems of rapid development of shale gas is that people are worried about water quality,” Brantley said. “Changes in water quality can be hard to assess were we don’t have information from before the development. We really need to think about how to better monitor and collect background measurements.”

Trout Unlimited volunteers can go out into streams, collect water and send the samples on to Penn State for analysis. The members of the group and Penn State researchers gave the project a test run this month, and plan for more sampling in June.

“It’s really important to be able to establish what baseline conditions are so we can see if there are any long term changes occurring in the streams,” said Jacob Lemon, a shale gas monitoring coordinator with Trout Unlimited. “I think working with Penn State is a really cool idea, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of data we can collect.”

The new partnership will specifically search for methane in streams. Methane is not toxic to drink, but can pose a danger of fire or explosion if it escapes from water and collects in a confined space. It’s naturally found in many streams, but can also seep in to the water due to man-made conditions like natural gas drilling.

Using a new stream-based monitoring technique, researchers from Penn State and the U.S. Geological Survey recently found high levels of methane bubbling into a Lycoming County stream near the site of a reported Marcellus Shale gas well leak.

Although the methane was consistent with what would be found in deep layers of rock being drilled for natural gas, scientists could not conclusively trace it to the leaky well because they lacked background data that could tell them the stream’s natural methane levels.

For Brantley, it highlighted the need to have better background data. Fishermen, and those who frequent the streams, seemed to her like a logical choice to help provide it.

“Who cares about water quality more than people who live near these streams? It seems natural to think about approaches were we ask them to volunteer,” Brantley said.

The partnership with Trout Unlimited and other opportunities for citizen scientist involvement will be some of the many topics discussed next week at the annual Shale Network Workshop.

Founded in 2010 with National Science Foundation funding, the network is a collaborative effort between Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Dickinson College and the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science to collect and analyze data on water quality in the Marcellus Shale drilling region.

The workshop, which will be held May 7 and 8 at the Atherton Hotel in State College, brings together researchers, experts, government officials, industry representatives and environmental advocates to compare lessons learned the previous year abut water issues in the gas development.

“It’s really a wonderful venue to actually talk about what we are trying to do and how best to do it, whether that is background testing or looking for well leaks,” Brantley said. “We can figure out together how to make that work, and do it while everybody is at the table.”

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