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Susquehanna Life

Our Natural World: Budding Biologists Target Water Quality

Nov 23, 2020 09:05AM ● By Darrin Youker
Budding Biologists Target Water Quality [7 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

Clean water sustains life, but its role is often overlooked until problems arise. Slowly and steadily, water quality is improving in the Susquehanna River watershed, but there is still work to be done. 

For more than 20 years, Dr. Melvin Zimmerman, director of the Clean Water Institute at Lycoming College—along with staff and students at the institute—have worked on regional projects that target water quality in the Susquehanna River watershed. The good news: water quality is recovering.  

“There is a lot of water in the world, but you want to make sure the quality of it can support all aspects of our lives,” Zimmerman said. “Everything is interconnected and water is at the center of what allows life to go on. In order to have clean water, we have to look at the source.”

Back to the source

Summer interns Ryan Orgitano, Logan Stenger, Sam Wanner and Kalynn Newman (with clipboard) lift streamside rocks to search for salamanders

For the Clean Water Institute, that has meant going to the mountains and hills of northcentrral Pennsylvania to study streams—all of which eventually feed into the Susquehanna River. A current initiative involves helping communities around Williamsport educate residents about the importance of stormwater management.

And perhaps most visibly, raising the profile of the humble Eastern Hellbender—Pennsylvania’s largest salamander—recently named the official amphibian of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—and a key indicator of stream health. 

Since 1989, the Clean Water Institute has been working in the Susquehanna River Watershed on projects to monitor water quality, or make improvements that reduce pollutant loads in creeks and streams. Lycoming College students have been at the heart of the Clean Water Institute’s work since its inception. 

“One of our main goals is to involve students in hands-on learning,” said Zimmerman, who taught biology for 36 years and now directs the institute. “We are trying to train students to be field biologists.” 

Onsite research

Summer interns Sam Wanner, Logan Stenger and Ryan Orgitano shock a headwater stream as they search for crayfish, salamanders and brook trout

For the past decade, college students working with the institute have ventured into the back country of Pennsylvania to study the distribution of wild trout in Pennsylvania. Wild trout are another good indicator of a healthy stream. 

Working with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Clean Water Institute is studying streams containing wild trout. While engaged in these assessments, students sample water quality to look at stream chemistry and analyze overall stream habitat. It’s a good opportunity for students to learn the protocols of field biology, Zimmerman said. 

Based on field research, and the potential presence of trout, these headwater streams could be designated by the state as “Exceptional Value” streams, adding a layer of protection to these waters. 

Elevated status

Student interns Devin Welch, Austin Morder and Jennifer Schwartz, and CWI research associate Peter Petokas, prepare for a dive last summer to explore water health

Nearly 8,000 creeks and streams in Pennsylvania are designated with this highest level of protection. But an equally important goal of the unassessed waters project is to document which streams have reproductive trout populations. The designation of a stream as containing reproductive trout population adds a layer of protection/consideration in the permitting of any land development project that might impact a stream, and sets a reference point to evaluate future impacts. CWI’s involvement in the assessment of streams started in 2010 as natural gas drilling began in earnest in the Northern Tier.  

Like brook trout, the elusive hellbender is also an indicator of water quality. Once widespread through North America, the native range of this amphibian has diminished due to water quality stressors and habitat loss. 

Widespread deforestation in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s caused a number of creeks to fill up with silt, hiding the large boulders that hellbenders live under, said Dr. Peter Petokas, a biologist with the Clean Water Institute who specializes in Eastern Hellbenders. 

Petokas, and a group of students, worked for several years to get the hellbender named the official amphibian of Pennsylvania, and with it shed light on water quality in Pennsylvania.

“The hellbender has raised awareness of what we do with water quality work,” Petokas said. 

Rearing hellbenders

Summer intern Jennifer Schwartz searches for salamander larvae in a vernal pool in Lycoming County

The Clean Water Institute is raising hellbenders to introduce them back into their native Pennsylvania streams through a partnership with the Bronx Zoo, in Bronx, NY. Eggs are hatched at the zoo and the fledgling hellbenders are kept there until they are 2 ½ years old before being transported to Lycoming College. From there, they are tended to by college students for another year before being reintroduced to the wild, Petokas said. 

So far, the Clean Water Institute has released 100 hellbenders into the wild, and another 150 are being reared at the zoo. Hellbenders, which can live to be 30 years old, don’t reproduce until they are 12 years old, so keeping them in controlled environments gives them a better chance at survival. 

In addition, the college is working at locations on the Upper Susquehanna River to restore habitat by placing boulders and artificial structures that will mimic the types of places that hellbenders like to live and hide, Petokas said.

CWI staffers Peter Petokas (far left), Bob Smith (back) and Emily Bohlin (center front with blue jeans) attend the Susquehanna River Symposium last fall with student-interns who presented at the conference

“Our goal is to monitor how these populations are doing over time,” he said. “There are few new populations out there and they are doing pretty well.” 

Projects like these demonstrate that water quality is improving in the Susquehanna River watershed, Zimmerman said. Stressors like poor quality wastewater treatment plants, agriculture runoff and acid mine drainage are being addressed, and the work is resulting in a tangible benefit. There’s work to be done for sure, but efforts are paying off, Zimmerman said. 

“When I came to the area in 1979, there were no fish in the river above Lock Haven because of the poor water quality,” he said. “Water quality has improved, but there are always new issues for us to confront, and we have to look at new things that contribute to pollution events.”

Darrin Youker writes from his home in Adams County.

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