Conservationists including local college students are delving into uncharted waters with the state Fish and Boat Commission's Unassessed Water Study.
Robert Weber, fisheries biologist for the commission, said Wednesday at Lycoming College the study isn't directly aimed at monitoring Marcellus Shale exploration, but it happens to keep watchful eyes on the natural gas drilling.
Weber, who was one of the guests invited to speak at the meeting hosted by the Susquehanna Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said the stream surveyors enlisted in the study especially are wary of any activity deemed potentially detrimental to the environment.
Weber answered some public questions about drilling, but kept his presentation more open-ended about the entire stream assessment program.
He said it provides increased knowledge about wild trout distribution, wetlands and their riparian buffers.
When the commission evaluated its planning this decade, Weber said it was determined that it only had scientific data on 3,000 of the state's 45,000 waterways.
"We have a significant number of unassessed water and they're probably not being protected for wild trout," Weber said. "Our goal is to protect watersheds with the unassessed streams program."
From data obtained in field studies conducted by the commission and other organizations and colleges assisting, Weber said computerized geographic information system technology is used to chart the findings.
Results for the past year, which Weber said was the study's inaugural season, surpassed expectations.
He said the local participation of Lycoming College was integral to the achievement.
Under the direction of Mel Zimmerman, biology professor at the college, 43 waterways were studied this past summer and fall, including waters in the Lycoming, Loyalsock and lower Pine Creek watersheds.
That local count is incorporated into the 307 waters that were examined statewide last year, which Weber said is well over the 200 studies expected for the first five years.
The studies, which the state Department of Environmental Protection and King's College in Wilkes-Barre also were involved with, resulted in what Weber said is the proposal of 99 new waters added to the state's wild trout stream list.
Three of the waters, including local Pine Creek tributary Jacobs Run, are approved for the state's Class A wild trout stream list, which include some of the most pristine streams.
Being added to these lists provides the waters more environmental protection, and Weber said the Class A streams get the most protection.
"We want to properly classify the fish populations," Zimmerman said.
He and his students looked for particular stream characteristics, including water pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, hardness, alkalinity and dissolved solids.
Finding fish can be an exhibit of a healthy stream, according to those in the study.
On addition to trout, they also are recording other flora and fauna found.
Data helped them determine biomass, which Zimmerman said is critical to the information turned into the state commission to be analyzed.
Twenty-one documented wild trout populations found by Zimmerman's group accounts for nearly half of all the waters they studied.
Preparing for next year's study, Zimmerman said watershed organizations can get involved if they complete proper training and said similar groups and clubs could be especially helpful to him in securing landowner permission for surveys.
Zimmerman said another area school - Susquehanna University - is expected to be among the new groups involved in this year's study.