A Race Against the Clock

Hello readers! Justin Wright here, research assistant for the Lamendella lab at Juniata College, excited to offer you my perspective on our quest to obtain a seemingly impossible amount of water samples with a single weekend.

Crunch time doesn’t even begin to describe the mad rush that the Grant Lab underwent this past weekend. Due to an unfortunate error in packaging, we needed to re-collect water samples from 26 sampling locations scattered throughout the Central Pennsylvania area, transport these samples back to campus, and have them filtered and packaged for shipment to the U.S. Geological Survey for Mercury analysis… all within a 3 day period. In addition to the sheer amount of samples that we had to collect, we needed to use some finesse when it came to coordinating the time of sample collection with the time of filtration back in the lab. The reason being, water samples set for mercury analysis cannot remain idle in their bottles for longer than 24 hours. If a sample remains in its bottle beyond 24 hours, Hg can adsorb to the plastic potentially changing Hg concentrations in the sample. Therefore, not only was this weekend going to be a physically daunting challenge, but also a mental one, in terms of working out a plan to get all of the samples collected and returned to the lab so that they could undergo filtration without sitting in the freezer longer than 24 hours. To accomplish this task, our whole team needed to be on its A-game. Everyone had to know their role and be aware of their deadlines. Time was our enemy, and we were constantly racing against the clock. I felt like we were Keanu Reeves in a weekend-long version of the movie Speed, one mistake and everyone was in trouble. I It was beyond crunch time, it was “I don’t know how are we going to get this done in time”…time.

By Thursday (August 7th), our plan was set. Friday morning at around 830 AM, two vans, containing two researchers each, were going to collect 15 of the 26 samples we needed to obtain. One van’s route contained 9 sampling sites, the other contained 7, but with a greater distance to travel by van. It was decided that Dr. Grant and I would take the route containing 9 sampling sites, and Caleb and Allison would take on the route with 7 sampling locations. We were hopeful to get the samples back into lab by about midnight so that they could be ready for filtration the following morning. We were lucky enough to get in touch with former Juniata student and Grant Lab member Elliott Perow, to lead the filtering effort. Elliott, along with two other team members, Aaron and Abby, were prepped to begin filtration at 730 AM Saturday morning, beginning with the sample collected earliest the day before, to ensure no sample sat beyond the allotted 1 day period. The plan was set, but actually carrying it out was going to be the real challenge.

Friday

Dr. Grant and I were on the road by 830, fully aware of the physical and logistical challenge we were about to face. While some of the sampling locations were rather easy to access, most were a bit difficult. We decided to hit 6 of the 9 easier locations first, and then tackle the most challenging 3 last. Of the 3 difficult locations, the hardest site to access was Mocassin Run. Only being about a mile hike form the van, when it comes to distance Mocassin doesn’t stand out as difficult compared to the other sites. The trouble with Mocassin, is that after a flat ¼ mile hike, the remaining ¾ involves scaling a hill with a slope of more than 45o. The terrain is extremely rocky, with some of the thickest rhododendron bushes I have ever seen. As we were going through the first 6 sampling locations, Dr. Grant and I were continuously mentally preparing ourselves for the intense hike to Mocassin (see June 22nd post entitled “Mocassin Revisited” to see a video clip of an earlier trip into Mocassin).

This intense focus and mental preparation for the challenges ahead really benefitted Dr. Grant and I. Every sampling location went like clockwork, and seemingly out of nowhere, we had completed 6 sampling locations by about 230 in the afternoon. Needless to say we were pumped, but we still had to hop over our biggest hurdle, Mocassin. Upon our arrival our spirits were high, but physically I was beginning to feel a little weak. Being a 6 foot, 150 pound, out-of-shape microbiologist, the day’s hikes were beginning to take a toll on my body. But on we went. Upon reaching the ¾ mile downhill slope, I fell within a matter of seconds. Dr. Grant laughed and told me that: “If you only fall once at Mocassin then you are doing something right.” After falling 8 more times, I lost count. On we went, and eventually we made it too the stream. As we collected water samples and caught our breath, I suggested to Dr. Grant that he should give his research students badges for surviving some of the more difficult sampling locations. He said he would consider it, and if he does I am looking forward to obtaining my Mocassin badge because we did indeed survive the climb back to the van!

After completing Mocassin, our morale couldn’t be higher, and while the remaining two sites were challenging, we completed them with great efficiency. When the last water sample was bagged and put on ice, Dr. Grant and I were amazed to see that it was only 830. A trip that we had expected to potentially take us into the early morning hours of the next day was completed before nightfall. We rendezvoused with Caleb and Allison at the lab by 1030, as they had also completed their day’s work with extreme speed. We were ecstatic. Like Keanu Reeve’s we had beaten the clock, but the ride wasn’t over yet.

Saturday

15 of the 26 samples had been collected, 11 remained. We decided to attack the sampling effort with the same strategy as the day before, 2 vans with 2 researchers to a van. This time, Caleb and I would sample 7 locations, and Dr. Grant along with his wife, Kimi, tackled the remaining 4 locations.

Again, both vans attacked sample collection head-on, and after the monstrous challenge that we had faced on Friday, obtaining these final samples came with ease. By 1030 PM Saturday night, Caleb and I were back in lab again with all 7 samples collected. We went to put our samples in the freezer and noticed that there weren’t any other samples inside.

“That’s odd,” I thought to myself. I had expected to see the 4 samples that Dr. Grant had collected with Kimi that same evening, since the filtration team’s job on Saturday was to filter only the 15 samples we had collected on Friday. Surely they couldn’t have been so ahead of schedule that they also completed the 4 samples Dr. Grant brought in with his wife? Well…they were. The filtration team had successfully filtered 19 samples for Mercury analysis in a single day. Not only were we getting the job done, we were ahead of schedule. The end was in sight.

Sunday

On Sunday, Elliot, Abigail and I filtered the final 7 samples Caleb and I collected the day before. As I observed and carried out the filtration process, I realized how truly impressive it was that the team had gotten 19 samples done the night before. Each step required extreme focus, as there were many pieces involved in the filtration process, and avoiding contamination was of the highest concern. One thing I continued to forget was that, as the person deemed “clean hands” I could not touch anything besides the equipment involved with the filtration process. I must have burned through 10 pairs of nitrile gloves by the end of the day, as I continued to touch the countertop. Looking back, after the arduous days of sampling beforehand, my mind was not quite in the freshest of states. Nevertheless, we got through it. After filtration was complete, Dr. Grant, Elliot and I packed up the samples for shipment with extreme care to avoid making the same mistake with improper packaging. By 4 pm we had finished. Just like that it was over. The samples were sent, and we were spent. Everyone returned home for much needed rest.

Looking back on the entire weekend, I have realized how rewarding of an experience it was for me, as I hope it was for everyone else involved. It is truly amazing what we can accomplish as humans if we have passion for what we are working towards. When it comes to solving the environmental impacts and the unanswered questions behind fracking, the passion we posses here at Juniata is staggering, and I can say with confidence that it matches with any large institution in the county. While this work required intensive work, dedication and time, it was worth every second.

As Dr. Grant and I were on the road Friday evening, we discussed our motivations for taking on this project. We both agreed that we are not trying to combat fracking corporations, simply to prove that fracking is “bad”. Rather, with fracking being such a new but large-scale process with such huge potential environmental implications, it would be foolish and short-sighted to not be curious to investigate what these implications may be. Streams are the veins of our earth, and it is our duty as environmental researchers to ensure their overall health is being maintained. If this weekend proved anything, it proved that the Gramendella lab (Grant and Lamendella labs) contain individuals passionate enough to do anything to investigate the implications of fracking. I am convinced that with continued dedication, we will continue to answer some of the unanswered questions behind fracking. I can’t wait to get my Mocassin badge, and I look forward to getting many more.

 

~Justin Wright

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Discovering Pennsylvania Streams and their Unknown Fish Assemblages

This post comes from Dr. Jonathon Niles, a colleague from Susquehanna University who is a biology professor and the director of the RK Mellon Freshwater Research Initiative.  I have worked with Jonathon for the past several years on the Unassessed Waters Initiative that aims to document fish assemblages in previously unassessed streams (for more information about the program look under ABOUT tab on wildsonfrack).  This program and its collaborators, like Jon, have allowed for thousands of streams to be classified and protected because of the discovery of wild populations of brook and brown trout.  Hope you enjoy – Chris Grant

Pennsylvania is fortunate to have a vast amount of streams and thus very important aquatic resources. We have large rivers like the Susquehanna, creeks and streams that are five to fifty meters wide, and we have streams and runs that you could easily step across. Each of these streams is an important ecological and economic resource for the Commonwealth. While, Pennsylvania has over 64,000 waterways, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission only have data on approximately 6,500 of these waters. Therefore, only 9 percent of the streams in the Commonwealth are being actively and properly managed. Of the waters remaining, many likely support wild trout populations. Trout whether it be rainbow trout, brown trout, or the native brook trout are an important economic resources for the Commonwealth, as their fisheries generate over a billion dollars of economic activity across the state each year. Trout are also the key indicator species in coldwater streams across the state. Brook trout in particular are only found in the highest quality streams. The native brook trout needs clean, highly oxygenated water of the highest purity. They have a narrow range of pH tolerance, and are sensitive to low oxygen, pollution, pH changes, temperature, and other human induced environmental effects such a sedimentation.

Created in 2010, The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Unassessed Waters Initiative is a collaboration between the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Pennsylvania colleges to visit headwater tributaries that have never been assessed to determine the presence and status of wild trout populations. An unassessed water is a waterway that has no biological data or information about which fish species live in that water. The goals of this program are to proactively identify and properly classify the most at-risk streams which support naturally reproducing trout populations in order to protect, conserve and enhance those waters as wild trout streams. Data collected from the Unassessed Waters Initiative is used by the Fish and Boat Commission to help correctly classify and protect high quality trout streams from environmental alterations and degradation. The primary threat to undocumented wild trout populations is inadequate water quality protection. The importance of adequately protecting our aquatic resources has increased dramatically with Marcellus Shale Gas extraction. Proper stream classification and protection is vital, as it is likely that streams will be impacted by human caused stressors with additional pressure for resource extraction.

Since 2011 my research team at Susquehanna University has been involved with the Unassessed Waters Initiative. Since 2011 we have surveyed 340 previously unassessed waters as part of this project. These streams have been across most of north central Pennsylvania in Snyder, Union, Centre, Mifflin, Northumberland, Montour, Lycoming, and Sullivan counties. The majority of the streams we have sampled are within Lycoming and Sullivan counties in the Loyalsock Creek drainage. We have found trout in over 55% of the streams we have sampled in those 3 years. During this time we have worked directly with many different stakeholder groups all of whom are concerned about protecting water quality and trout streams. We have worked with watershed associations like the Loyalsock Creek Watershed Association who have provided in kind volunteer hours, donated many nights of overnight accommodations for our crews. Many private landowners, hunting clubs, and private companies like Dwight Lewis Lumber have allowed us access to sample streams on their property. Government agencies like DNCR’s Bureau of Forestry and the Game Commission have opened closed gates to gain us access to extremely remote streams that needed to be sampled. The cooperation from multiple entities has shown me that this program is extremely important for aquatic resource protection across the commonwealth.

Last summer my team of 4 students and I decided to focus on un-named tributaries for the Unassessed Waters Initiative. Un-named tributaries are the small blue line streams on a USGS topographic map that drain to the larger named streams. Un-named tributaries represent the largest amount of unassessed waters across the state with over 54,000 un-named tributaries still remaining to be assessed. During the summer of 2013 we sampled 168 un-Named tributaries across several watersheds including Loyalsock Creek, Lycoming Creek, Buffalo Creek, and White Deer Creek, of these 168 un-named tributaries we found that 80 of the un-named tributaries had no trout (61 had water but no trout, while 19 were dry). We found that 88 un-named tributaries had trout present with brook trout being present in 85 of those streams. Finding brook trout in 50.5% of the 168 un-named tributaries we sampled was surprising and shows that these un-named tributaries are important clean water resources. Our data indicated that 23 (26%) of these streams might even qualify for the best of the best qualification (Class A trout streams) from Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commission. That is a very high percentage of high quality waters which may indicate that these un-named tributaries are almost as important as larger named streams in terms of trout habitat and production.

This summer our field crews (1 research scientist Mr. Mike Bilger, 1 research technician Mr. John Panas, and 5 summer student interns) have again been focusing on un-named tributaries. We have been primarily sampling in the Schrader Creek watershed of southern Bradford County. This area around state game lands 12 and 36 is in the heart of Marcellus Shale gas development. Over the last few weeks we have made several overnight trips here and sampled 6 named streams of which four had trout, and 2 were severely impacted from acid mine drainage and had no trout. During this time we have also sampled 43 un-named tributaries in Schrader Creek watershed. We have found brook trout in a large number of un-named tributaries in the watershed. Our data primarily shows that un-named tributaries will be either dry or if the hold water they have trout present. Last week we were extremely surprised to find brook trout in an unlikely looking stream (Un-named tributary 64346) in the town of Laquin (see picture 1). After arriving at the stream we found the stream had lots of sediment and little water flow. (see picture 2). However, after taking water quality measurements, we found that the stream was cold, and had good pH so it may be fed by some springs and had good water quality that it might hold trout. We began to electroshock the 1st pool and to our surprise we found several small brook trout in that pool and throughout the rest of the 100m section (picture 3). All total we found over 20 brook trout ranging in size from 2 inches to up to almost 6 inches (picture 4). This discovery of just goes to show us that we should judge a stream by its outward appearance that we need to look at the water chemistry and actually sample a stream to determine if it is a good quality stream.

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Picture 1. Location of Un-named tributary 64346 on a USGS topographic map

6 (2)

Picture 2. Un-named tributary 64346 in near the mouth of Schrader Creek in Laquin, Bradford County.

 

6 (1)

Picture 3. Finding brook trout in the 1st few meters of Un-named tributary 64346.

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Picture 4. Completing our sampling in Un-named tributary 64346.

The Long Cold Days of Late July

On Tuesday of this past week, we revisited the Bells Gap Watershed as part of our ongoing work on a project trying to develop a conservation plan that addresses threats to the health and proliferation of newly discovered brook trout populations (for more info see Bells Gap Headwater Project under the about tab). The biggest threat is that a number of the sub-watersheds have abandoned and reclaimed shallow and deep mines land within their watersheds.

We visited two adjacent streams and their watersheds: Green Springs — with no abandoned mine drainage (AMD) within its watershed, and Tubb Run — which has significant AMD within its watershed.

Access to these sites is a little difficult and it required a decent amount of hiking and elevation change (see below map). We set out to sample 6 locations (labelled on map below) accessed via hiking a large loop (~5 mi.) through both watersheds (red-dashed line on map below). We arrived at our parking location (labelled VAN on map) around 930 AM. We then packed up all of our gear and Jen, Nicole, Allison, Brad and I headed towards Tubb Run.

Bells Gap topo

Topo map showing Tubb Run (on left) and Green Springs Run (on right) with six sampling locations denoted and hike route outlined in red-dashed line.

We first sampled Tubb Run and found (as anticipated) the pH to be quite acidic due to the influence of upstream AMD. Presumably as a result of acidic waters, we found no brook trout at sites (1) and (2). To our surprise, we did catch 6 brook trout at site (3) on Tubb Run where the pH was still 4.93 (a pH of 7 is neutral and the pH scale is logarithmic…so a pH of 4.93 is quite acidic).

tubb

Picture of Tubb Run at sampling point (3) where six brook trout were caught in a 100-m reach

After hiking past the confluence of the two streams, we arrived at our first stream site (4) on Green Springs Run. At this site we caught 21 Brook trout and found the stream pH to be much more neutral. Further upstream on Green Springs site (5) we caught even more brookies, 42 to be exact. At our final site on Green spring (6), we didn’t catch any trout (which we believe to be due to insufficient water-as flow was quite low).

qwe

Where’s Waldo? A Picture of Allison hiking between sites

While we collected quite a bit of other data (stream water chemistry, macros, collected samples for Hg analysis), differences are apparent from observing fish data alone. These adjacent watersheds are very similar (size, slope, forested, geographic location, etc.), except for AMD influence. Comparing fish across the streams, we caught a total of 6 brookies at Tubb Run to our 63 brookies at Green Springs. It is this kind of stark contrast that makes the ecological “cost “ of our past energy extraction (coal) in this area more real, and gives me pause projecting towards future ecological “cost” associated with Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction.

Upon arriving back at the van (at 11pm) and packing up for our drive home, I couldn’t help but reflect upon what part of this 16 hour day was most challenging to our team. At this point in the summer, everyone works well together, is very capable of carrying large/heavy packs, hiking long distances, working long days, sampling after dark, and surviving largely on snacks and “trout adrenaline” until we finish. However, one thing we aren’t accustomed to is working in the cold….and it was cold for July. The night before the weather said it was going to drop to 50 degrees F, and when we arrived to our first site for the day, it wasn’t much warmer. While things did warm up through the day, everyone kept their long sleeves on, and at our last site (which we sampled largely after dark), it was cold enough to see your breath and get chilled. Now this would be normal if it were early fall or late spring, but we are in late July when the weather is supposed to be hot and sticky, and that is what our bodies are anticipating. While the cooler weather made hiking between sites quite comfortable, it made the remainder of our long field day of in-stream work (in the 12 degrees Celsius stream water) a little chilly for late July.

Chris Grant