The Mellon grant has also funded:
- An electrofishing boat, which delivers electric currents into larger bodies of water, such as the river;
- Two new electrofishing backpack units—including the one Edwards was using—to supplement a previously owned unit; and
- Several hand-held water-testing devices.
In addition, the grant made possible Bilger’s full-time position and doubled the paid internship opportunities for Susquehanna students, permitting 24 undergraduates to be involved with river-related research this summer.
For several years, Niles, Bilger and faculty members in Susquehanna’s departments of Biology, Chemistry and Earth and Environmental Sciences—including Jack Holt, Carlos Iudica, Ahmed Lachhab and Lou Ann Tom—have worked with a wide range of stakeholders and partner institutions in the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies (SRHCES) to research the quality of both the water and the aquatic life it supports.
They’ve examined the effects of acid-mine drainage in the Shamokin Creek watershed and worked with King’s College to study mercury in the river. Since 2010, Niles, Bilger and their students have surveyed more than 600 of the more than 4,000 stream segments analyzed under the state’s Unassessed Water Initiative. Over the past two years, nearly 60 percent of the 194 streams they electroshocked contained wild trout.
Teams of Susquehanna faculty and students have also collaborated with other institutions and organizations to investigate the impact of fracking on wild trout streams; why the number of adult smallmouth bass are declining; and the impact of invasive rusty crayfish. They've also studied algae, red-back salamanders and riparian ground spiders' role in the spread of mercury, and used ground-penetrating radar to assess the sediment load in nearby Faylor Lake.
The Mellon grant has enabled research partners in the watershed to significantly intensify their efforts as well. This year, the FRI awarded six grants totaling $70,000 to seven researchers from Trout Unlimited; Bucknell, Chatham and Penn State universities; and Lycoming College.
A strong proponent of the FRI is Skip Weider, former vice president of finance and development at Susquehanna who now chairs the SRHCES. The nonprofit's academic research partners include Susquehanna, Bloomsburg, Bucknell and Lock Haven universities, and King's and Lycoming colleges.
"I go back to what former Gov. Ed Rendell told me when state agencies began funding our coalition," says Weider, whose organization financed 10 student interns from Susquehanna this summer. "He said our colleges and universities are probably our most underutilized assets, and I agree. Students and faculty are able to conduct needed research that, during a time of budget cutbacks, the state agencies cannot do."
John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, agrees: "We have questions for which we currently don't have the answers, such as, ‘Is the river impaired or not?' We see the FRI as a great step to be able to work not only with Susquehanna researchers, but also with researchers at all the universities in the basin to fill in those data gaps.
"The lab gives them a better way to practice science together, especially at the river's scale, to look at such issues as endocrine-disrupting chemicals and algae blooms."