Volunteer Fishing Enthusiasts Look for Unknown Trout Streams and Test Water Quality

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
10 April 2011
By John Hayes

In some Pennsylvania watersheds, the only thing separating Marcellus Shale drilling crews from a fortune underground could be brook trout.

Tomorrow in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission will vote on the designation of 98 streams statewide as Naturally Reproducing Wild Trout Waters, following the recent discovery there of trout populations, some by volunteer anglers working in a program that trains them to do stream surveys.

The Wild Trout designation would trigger further state Department of Environmental Protection testing and possible issuance of land use restrictions in those watersheds that could limit development, including drilling.

Sixteen of the small streams and tributaries recommended for protection are located in Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties. One more is in Cambria.

As more than 800,000 Pennsylvania fishing license holders prepare for the opening of trout season on April 16 in most of the state, some angler volunteers are searching vulnerable waterways for unrecorded trout colonies, or charting baseline water conditions in Marcellus drilling zones that could be used for reference in potential pollution emergencies.

John Arway, executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission, said the water monitoring is not intended to thwart gas drilling -- it's a means of conducting "necessary research in tough economic times," and couldn't be done without help from citizen scientists.

"We don't have enough eyes and ears out there. I don't have enough biologists to monitor all of the water that we need to check to protect the resource," he said.

Two separate volunteer water-monitoring projects with roughly the same goals are under way in Pennsylvania. One is run by Fish and Boat, the other by Washington, D.C.-based Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit cold-water conservation group with chapters in Pennsylvania. The nascent projects still lack focus and coordination in some areas, but the parallel projects are to intersect later this year and become a volunteer-based research tool of the Fish and Boat Commission.

Fish and Boat's five-year Trout Management Plan, launched last year, calls on volunteers to provide data on 45,513 streams statewide that have never been visited by the agency's biologists. Through the Unassessed Waters Program, volunteer students and interns at Lycoming and Kings' colleges in central Pennsylvania take a day of training before heading out to headwaters and tributaries in specific watersheds in search of several things -- most importantly, wild trout.

If Fish and Boat commissioners designate a stream section as Wild Trout Waters, DEP staffers collect additional data on invertebrates and determine if the waters will be classified a High-Quality Cold-Water Fishery (which restricts development in the watershed) or Exceptional Value Fishery (which mandates more stringent restrictions).

"Originally the program was designed to look at waters where urban development growth was highest," said Dave Miko, Fish and Boat chief of fisheries management, who wrote the state's Trout Management Plan. "When the Marcellus Shale industry boomed, we re-prioritized those waters with [potential drilling] activity, as well as urban growth areas. ... These are waters we certainly want to go look at because we feel those waters are most at risk of degradation."

Trout need cold water. In particular, Pennsylvania's official state fish and only stream trout native to its waters, the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), thrives in about 54 degrees. Since the sealing of many coal mines in the state, lots of small streams that 20 years ago ran red or white with toxins are now healthy enough to attract caddis, mayflies and brook or brown trout. The discovery of reproducing populations of wild trout presents a clear and unmistakable indicator of clean water, an invaluable resource.

Of prime concern to the Fish and Boat Commission are potentially high-value cold-water tributaries that flow into warm-water streams or rivers with lower water-quality ratings. The unassessed tributaries, which potentially hold trout, currently get the lower classifications and lesser protections of the waters they flow to.

The easiest way to prove fish are making babies is to identify the presence of two year-classes of a species. Under the assessment program, volunteers are trained in the use of electro-fishing devices.

"Find trout smaller than 6 inches long and 12 inches long in the same place and you know you have multiple year-classes," said Mr. Miko. "That means they're reproducing."

As part of Fish and Boat's Trout Management Plan, the Unassessed Waters Program is funded through existing resources including grants, angler licensing and permitting fees. Last year, the program's volunteers sampled more than 65 waterways. Fifty-five percent contained reproducing populations of brown or brook trout, prime indicators that could trigger DEP involvement if the Fish and Boat commissioners change those streams' designations tomorrow.

By next year, said Mr. Miko, the expanding program will work with nine training campuses statewide, including the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Trout Unlimited takes a different route to the same destination.

Essentially a Washington lobbying firm funded through dues paid by chapter

members, TU has no official position on Marcellus Shale drilling. But with Pennsylvania's 52 chapters -- the largest state council in TU -- the regional issue has piqued the interest of the group's leadership, which recently hired Dave Sewak of Windber, near Johnston, to coordinate its volunteer-based water monitoring program, Coldwater Conservation Corps. In southwest Pennsylvania, TU's Penn's Woods West, Forbes Trail and Chestnut Ridge chapters participate.

Mr. Sewak, who worked on community conservation projects at the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, visits the chapters to explain the program and trains volunteers to use $300 monitoring kits provided by TU national. Each kit includes a GPS unit for precise marking of locations, pH strips for measuring acidity and alkalinity, items for measuring and recording data, and one LaMotte Tracer Pocket Tester, which measures temperature, conductivity and total dissolved solids. Volunteers also take water samples that are analyzed at Dickenson College in Carlisle, south of Harrisburg, for barium and strontium, signature elements of hydraulic fracturing fluids used in Marcellus Shale drilling. Volunteers are coached to bracket a drilling location with samples taken upstream and downstream of the site.

It's not easy -- volunteers are required to return to the same sites multiple times, log precision data and adhere to a rigorous data collection protocol.

"Development is moving very rapidly, and the state just doesn't have the wherewithal to keep track of everything, especially in rural areas," Mr. Sewak said. "Our guys are trained to know the whole [drilling] process. We put together a conservation success index based on solid science. They'll be testing throughout the year and have a real good idea of what the stream should look like."

It doesn't always work that way. Some volunteers say they wish they were given more direction.

"There isn't much action guidance on this program," said Monty Murty of Laughlintown, president of Forbes Trail Trout Unlimited of Ligonier. He completed the Coldwater Conservation Corps training, and plans to begin testing as soon as Westmoreland County creeks drop to normal levels.

"They leave it up to the chapters to identify the most risky sites for Marcellus Shale impact," he said. "At our next meeting, Step 1 will be to review maps in our area and prioritize sites to test baselines." Nevertheless, he said, "It's good work. Something that has to be done."

Volunteer water monitor Sean Brady of Observatory Hill said he got involved because he's "addicted to fly fishing." With a biology degree and a background as assistant executive director at Venture Outdoors, he's Riverlife Pittsburgh's development director and a Penn's Woods West Trout Unlimited member. Having completed training, he sees the Coldwater Conservation Corps as potentially useful, but says it remains "very focused on the details, but kind of unclear on where they want us to go and what to test."

That could change later this year. Bob Weber, head of Fish and Boat's Unassessed Waters Program, said he's had discussions with Mr. Sewak on bringing the citizen science programs together. "I'm going to use [the TU program] to collect water samples in a lot of these streams, to help me to prioritize where to send sampling crews, and Dave [Sewak] will be the liaison between the Fish and Boat Commission and the TU chapters," he said.

Steve Forde, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said he wasn't aware of the details of the volunteer testing programs, but in general the industry would welcome it.

"I think we have shown over several years we embrace added transparency on a variety of levels," he said. "We are a highly regulated, highly transparent and consequently highly sophisticated industry, particularly when it comes to water quality."

Mr. Arway said he believes gas can be extracted from Marcellus Shale without polluting water resources.

"Most operators," he said, "want to do this well and safely."

Forbes Trail Trout Unlimited members will choose assessment sites at their next meeting, 7 p.m. April 20 at the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve in Latrobe, 724-238-7860.

John Hayes: jhayes@post-gazette.com