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  • Betsie Blumberg, Atlas Workgroup member

The Senior Environmental Corps: Volunteers Monitoring Water Quality

Betsie Blumberg, Member of the Atlas Workgroup and CCPaSEC

Every month members of the local chapter of the Pennsylvania Senior Environmental Corps revisit a Centre County stream to check on its health. Divided into 13 teams, members meet at their team’s designated stream to pursue two objectives: 1) to monitor the water quality and physical condition of their stream and alert the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection when data are out of the “healthy” range, and 2) to get together outdoors to enjoy comradery while observing what’s happening in the environment.

This program, PaSEC, is part of the Centre County Retired Senior Volunteer Program. It has about 60 members, all volunteers who belong to teams of about 5 members each. Teams regularly monitor at two sites on their stream on a chosen day of the month.

When teammates meet at their stream, the first thing they notice is how the stream is behaving: likely remarkably low and slow during a dry summer, or, after a heavy spring downpour, very high water and powerful flow. To monitor the day’s conditions, each team has a kit of meters and supplies that members have been trained to use. The stream’s constantly changing physical characteristics are recorded by members wading into the water with a flow meter to read the velocity of the current (see figure 1) and, using measuring sticks and tapes, noting the width and depth of the flow. One team member stands on the bank and writes down the readings that those in the water call out (figure 2).

Figure 1. The flowmeter has a small propeller that spins when submerged in flowing water. The velocity of the flow is shown in the handheld meter.

Figure 2. Readings are recorded at the site.

For testing the water quality, the kit includes a digital colorimeter a little larger than a cell phone. Water samples are taken from the stream and treated with appropriate reagents. The colorimeter then reads the concentration of nitrates, phosphates and sulfates (figure 3). Additional meters read pH, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity. Alkalinity is determined by hand; while someone counts the drops, acid is slowly added to a treated sample as it changes color from green to red as it is buffered.

Figure 3. A reagent is being added to a water sample. The sample test tube will be placed in the colorimeter and the concentration of, in this case, phosphate will show on the screen.

Two of the teams travel to more remote streams in the north of the county where fracking for shale gas has been operating. These teams regularly visit 11 and 12 sites respectively. There, monitoring protocol varies somewhat from that done at local streams. In the fracking region, the colorimeter tests are unnecessary because the samples are sent to a research lab at Penn State University’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute where further analysis is done to try and detect any impact of fracking in the water.

Proliferation of aquatic life is the truest measure of the health of the streams, so in the spring and fall, monitoring includes checking on the tiny creatures who live in the water. This is done by raking up a sample of debris from the stream floor and spreading it out on a white surface where the amazing abundance of life in the mud becomes visible. Using forceps, members distinguish as many of the 23 index species (mostly insect larva and nymphs) as they can discern (figure 4). The number of individuals of each taxa is counted. The taxa fall into the categories of sensitive, somewhat sensitive, and tolerant to pollution. Applying a bit of math to the numbers, the stream’s water quality is determined to be good, fair or poor. (For more about these critters and some great pictures of them, see this article on this website.)

Figure 4. Some of the insect larva taken from the stream. The big one is a hellgrammite, a dobsonfly larva that is sensitive to polluted water, indicating that the water quality is good.

A quality control team member visits and monitors with each team once a year and compares his results to the team’s results on that day to ensure that each team’s equipment and protocol for sampling are working properly. Should there be wide disparities, suggestions for problem solving are offered. If team members notice that any of the monitoring results are odd for that stream or are outside of healthy ranges, the county water specialist is notified and if a problem is identified, the state Environmental Protection Agency is informed. In this way, PaSEC provides a first alert to the state that a stream needs attention.

All the data that teams collect are recorded and entered on the Centre County PaSEC (CCPaSEC) website and is thus available to the public. This record began in 2002 and its roughly 122,000 notes of environmental conditions reflect the history of the streams over the years as land use and weather patterns have altered. This long-term record has been useful to Penn State University students pursuing projects to understand how changes in stream data correlate with concurrent events in the area of study.

An important aspect of the PaSEC program is the welcome opportunity that these streamside meetings afford this group of seniors to meet with friends in the field, enjoy the riparian landscape, and practice citizen science, despite occasional bad weather. When all the data have been recorded, they often go out to lunch together.

Centre County PaSEC monitors 25 streams in our county; two of them are in the Spring Creek watershed, Slab Cabin Run and Galbraith Gap. Other volunteer groups, ClearWater Conservancy and Penn’s Valley Conservation Association, monitor some of the other Centre County creeks and each group does so with different equipment and protocols. CCPaSEC has also partnered with the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) to evaluate the success of a mitigation plan by sampling water in a stream before and after TU repaired the stream bank and improved the riparian buffer.

Centre County’s PaSEC was formed in 2002 through a federal program that partnered with the Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Agency. In 2007, federal funding ended and in 2008 CCPaSEC became a committee of ClearWater Conservancy of Central Pennsylvania, a non-profit conservation organization. This relationship allowed CCPaSEC to be covered by ClearWater’s tax exempt status (for grant proposal purposes) but otherwise it is self-sufficient. Centre County’s Retired & Senior Volunteer Program continues to provide CCPaSEC with meeting space and office support. The Centre County Conservation District advises as to the streams and sites that need monitoring.

Until 2019, PaSEC got material support from Nature Abounds, an organization that wrote proposals for government grants to supply the PASECs in Pennsylvania with equipment and supplies. Then Nature Abounds reported that grants were no longer available and that CCPaSEC would have to raise its own funds. This was a new challenge for the group. Initially (2020), CCPaSEC has been able to find some support from sources interested in conservation and gifts from donors. With these funds it has been able to provide each team with its own equipment kit; in the past, teams had to share kits.

The website contains much more information about the program, monitoring protocols, site locations, etc. For information about joining, call the Centre County Senior Volunteer Office at 814-355-6816. The more people who join, the more teams can be organized, and thus more streams can be monitored.

Betsie Blumberg came to Centre County as a student of the environment (then called nature) and ultimately was a writer for the National Park Service. She is happy to have found a group of outdoor-minded retired folks in PaSEC.


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