Water watchdogs


Sun-Gazette Correspondent

ROSE VALLEY – John Brumbaugh and Jon Larson, both members of the Mill Creek/Rose Valley Watershed Association, hunkered along the water’s edge at Mill Creek, looking like they were conducting science experiments in the field.

That’s sort of what they are doing. The pair are working to create a “first-alert system” for water pollution, Brumbaugh said.

Baseline ranking

The Marcellus shale, which can be a reservoir for natural gas, has attracted gas industry crews to the watershed in recent years. Active well sites now are in and around the area of Rose Valley Lake and the creek.

One year ago in June, the association began testing the water quality of three sites in the watershed.

The three locations still are tested by Brumbaugh and Larson once a month. They are the lower end of the watershed, near where Middle Creek empties into Loyalsock Creek; at the intersection of Sugar Camp Road; and at a tributary that feeds directly into Rose Valley Lake.

“It became more important to create a baseline testing for these waters to know what the quality was and test it afterwards to assure that nothing has occurred and creates problems in the water quality,” Brumbaugh said.

Last February, the pair went to Bloomsburg for more training, along with others interested in doing the same thing.

“What we are doing is an early warning system. We do the testing in the field,” Brumbaugh said.

They use meters to test the water’s pH – which refers to how acidic or basic it is. Tests for alkalinity measure the acidity level.

Common acids, Brumbaugh explained, include lemon juice and battery acid, while bleach is considered a basic substance.

pH levels can be affected by a variety of factors, including fertilizer contamination from lawns or fields.

In general, Pennsylvania streams are on the acidic side and can measure from 3 1/2 to 6 on the pH scale. Seven is neutral.

Streams on the low end of that range often have been contaminated either by acid mine drainage or are in areas affected by acid rainfall.

The pH level of a waterway also can be affected by the geology of its area. For instance, limestone trout streams tend to be more alkaline and may come in at 7 or 8 on the scale.

Brumbaugh and Larson also test for total dissolved solids, a term that describes the combined content of all inorganic and organic substances, such as minerals, metals and salts.

“For example, we can take tap water and test it. It is going to give you one reading and if you were to sprinkle salt in there and stir it around, it’s going to give you another,” he said.

‘Everyone uses it’

During testing, the two-man team looks for anything that may have polluted the stream and can’t be seen but has created a dissolved solid in the water, Brumbaugh said.

Salt is one of these major pollutants “from the brackish water that comes from drilling and, here again, we are that first warning,” Brumbaugh said.

Gas drilling is not the only reason why the crew tests the waterways.

“We started long before there was any gas drilling activity in the

area. We’re not against gas drilling, as long as it’s done properly,” Larson said. “We’re also concerned about agricultural runoff … and silt in the water.”

The numbers derived from the tests directly affect wildlife in the area and, mainly, fish, he said.

“The water temperature has a lot to do with fish” populations, Larson said. In colder streams, rainbow trout can be found. But when the temperature grows warmer, rainbows are gone.

Temperature changes can be due to a variety of factors. For instance, “along Mill Creek, vegetation and trees have been removed,” Larson said. With the lack of shade, “the water is warmer.”

Life force

The group’s main purpose is to protect the resource for recreational use and simply because of the fact that water is very important to life.

“Whether you are close to the source, like I am, or whether you are down stream, the water quality is important because everyone uses it,” Brumbaugh said.

Brumbaugh said he and Larson received their training from the Coldwater Conservation Corps, which is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited.

The training provided the men with the knowledge and materials to do the testing.

The Coldwater Conservation Corps receives data from the testing and so does a environmental group.

“Twice a year we do quality control and we take samples of that water and send it off to a group at Dickinson College called Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring, or ALLARM,” Brumbaugh said.

According to the college’s website ALLARM assists watershed communities to help in volunteer efforts and promote the collection of scientific data. “Many watershed organizations have identified stream monitoring as a central element to achieving their water quality goals.”

Brumbaugh said he has about 35 years experience in water conservation. He recently retired and moved to the area in 2010.

He has been a member of the Rose Valley/Mill Creek Watershed Association and recently accepted a director position. He said he has worked with ALLARM in the past.

There are about 80 to 100 volunteers across Pennsylvania who are doing the same thing in other watersheds.

Brumbaugh encourages people to get involved.

“I think everyone needs to be involved to ensure our water and other resources are protected,” he said.

If something is found, the group can ensure that someone will be responsible and fix the problem.

“The opportunity with our training and background is we can go to DEP (the state Department of Environmental Protection) or Fish and Boat Commission and let them know we have discovered some issues and they can take it from there,” Brumbaugh said.

There haven’t been any problems so far, although there were a few things Brumbaugh said were on watch.

“One test doesn’t make the trend. You have to watch the overall trend and it’s surprising to learn about how the water quality changes throughout the year,” he said.

They have found from season to season there are differences in readings.

There are changes in the water flow too, which is also something that is all measured during testing.

“Suppose you have a big rain and you get a lot of water in that stream. The dissolved solids of the pH is going to change,” Brumbaugh said.

Having done the testing for a year now, the group has developed a good baseline.

“I think what we have done to date is created a very sound baseline for the water quality in Mill Creek,” he said.

In addition to the physical testing of the water, Brumbaugh said, they do visual tests too.

“You walk down the stream and check water for clarity,” he said.

He stressed that having a watershed association helps to assure there is clean water, the whole purpose of such a group.