Researching the Risks of Fracking
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission calls it a “gas rush” and recognizes its potential threats—water pollution, reduced water quality and environmental disturbance. “It” is the prevalent natural gas drilling, through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that is taking place in large swaths of the state.
To identify streams requiring protection, government agencies rely on documentation, especially of trout populations. Only about 3,000 of the state’s 45,000 waterways are documented. The commission’s unassessed waters initiative gathers information on undocumented streams by partnering with local universities and colleges.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Jonathan Niles spent last summer examining 82 streams for the commission, assisted by more than $29,000 in grants from the Degenstein Foundation, the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds and the Loyalsock Creek Watershed Association. He found trout in 64 of the streams he studied. This included 92 percent of streams in the Muncy Creek drainage and 76 percent of the streams in the Loyalsock Creek drainage. As a result, eight streams may qualify for Class A trout stream designation, the highest quality classification.
“The classification set by the Fish and Boat Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection will help to increase the level of protection for coldwater species and water quality in areas where natural gas drilling may be expanding,” Niles explains.
He also gathered information on trout diets and the streams’ water quality, algae and aquatic insects, which will enhance his studies of headwater streams and coldwater fisheries. “By sampling the number of streams we did and taking additional data,” Niles says, “we expanded several different aspects of my research.” For instance, he will use this data to investigate impacts of flooding from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee on Loyalsock Creek.
Niles also involves students in his research, a common practice at Susquehanna, providing students with the opportunity to assist in data collection and use the data in a variety of ways, including senior research projects. “Some of these students are doing work similar to what graduate students in aquatic ecology would do,” Niles notes.
Ecology major Sam Silknetter ’14 and biology majors Caleb Currens ’12 and John Panas ’14 surveyed streams alongside Niles, thanks to the Summer Research Partners Program, which provides students with stipends for research experiences with faculty members.
Panas calls the research “the best work experience I have ever had,” and he and Silknetter agree that aquatic ecology is now a viable career choice for them.
Beyond personal gain, the students appreciate the larger difference the research will make. “Our data will help to protect these streams,” Silknetter says. “I love nature, and for once I’m doing her a service rather than the other way around.”
Contributing writers to The ’Grove section are Victoria Kidd, editor; Charlotte Lotz ’12, a creative writing major from Sugarloaf, Pa.; and Megan McDermott ’14, a creative writing and religion major from Lewisberry, Pa.