Growing up, Brett Miller ’20 spent his springs fishing for trout in French Creek near his hometown of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and his summers fishing off the coast of Cape May, New Jersey.
“Fishing has always just been a way to relax while also striving for something,” Miller says. “And even in my own lifetime I’ve seen a decline in fish populations in certain bodies of water. It’s inspired me to make an impact.”
When he came to Susquehanna as a first-year student, he knew he wanted to major in environmental sciences, but quickly concluded that real change happens at the policy level.
Susquehanna, through its work with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s (PFBC) Unassessed Waters Initiative, provided him a direct line.
Miller has worked alongside Jonathan Niles, director of Susquehanna’s Freshwater Research Institute (FRI), to survey creeks and streams to identify and protect wild trout streams throughout the state.
The data they collect directly influences whether or not the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will place greater protections around a stream, thereby creating certain restrictions for proposed development.
“Brook trout are an indicator species,” explains Miller, a double major in environmental studies and public policy. “They need cool, shaded water and a bank that isn’t eroded.”
The Unassessed Waters Initiative was launched in 2010 as part of the PFBC’s five-year strategic trout-management plan. The original goal was to document wild trout streams in danger of increasing human encroachment, but the natural gas boom brought new urgency to the effort.
As Miller witnessed, some streams are already lost.
“We saw some streams where it was too late,” he says. “They were orange, and the pH level was impossible for it to have living fish.”
Surveying these streams is a huge undertaking. Nearly nine years into the effort, Niles says the “easy pickings” have been picked.
Continuing Research Critical to Trout Stream Protection
Pennsylvania is home to more than 86,000 miles of streams and rivers, more than any state in the country except Alaska. Prior to the Unassessed Waters Initiative, the PFBC had been able to survey and implement management strategies on 24,511 miles of stream—or 29 percent of the state’s total stream miles. It’s a significant number, but of the waters remaining, many more likely support wild trout populations.
With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and boosted by additional funding from other granting agencies, Susquehanna has surveyed 849 of the 7,000 stream segments assessed since 2010—more than any other PFBC partner except Trout Unlimited, a national organization with about 300,000 members.
“The external Unassessed Waters partners have been crucial to the success of the program,” says Bob Weber, fisheries biologist and Unassessed Waters coordinator with the PFBC. “Due to numerous other priorities, our own staff cannot sample the magnitude of streams annually that we feel are necessary to keep up with the pace of development and ultimately properly protect these streams from permitted activities. This is the overall goal of the Unassessed Waters Initiative, and partners such as Susquehanna University are critical to reach that goal annually.”
Susquehanna shares its data with the PFBC, which in turn shares the information with the DEP. If appropriate, the DEP will designate streams as supporting the natural reproduction of trout, and developers will face greater restrictions when seeking permits to build in those watersheds.
“Even if wild trout are not present during Unassessed Waters surveys, the data collected is important in the assessment and statewide distribution of non-game species,” Weber says.
Niles and his students are specially trained by the PFBC in the organization's quality controls and data collection and entry protocols. When they do find trout, they test for water quality and use the FRI’s electrofishing equipment to collect fish and record their species, length and weight. Students also sample aquatic insects.
“We’ve been lucky to have both students who really get behind this and a designated research program,” says Niles. “Without those things we wouldn’t be able to make the impact we’re making.”
At the PFBC’s January meeting, 26 stream sections in 14 counties were nominated for wild trout–stream designation. Following a 60-day public comment period, the recommended streams can be approved by the PFBC board. The board also approved the addition of 69 new waters to the commission’s official list of wild trout streams.
“To know this stream we just classified will be protected from acid mine drainage or natural gas drilling; to know we can make a difference and save that stream and overall save the larger creek that leads to the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay,” Miller says, “that, from my perspective, is amazing.”
Chip Brown’s Centre County property marks the confluence of two unique efforts underway at Susquehanna’s Freshwater Research Institute (FRI)—precision conservation with the Chesapeake Conservancy and the Unassessed Waters Initiative with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Brown’s 109-acre property in Rebersburg, Pennsylvania, which he calls Pointer Haven, is home to an 1,800-foot segment of Elk Creek, a wild trout–supporting tributary within the Susquehanna River watershed.
Brown, a retired Philadelphia police officer who has always enjoyed the outdoors, bought his property in 2005 to make it more welcoming for wildlife, particularly pheasants.
Though Brown himself is not a farmer, the many farms surrounding his property were leaching agricultural runoff into his segment of the creek. When he realized his stream was in need of some help, he set about getting it.
Adrienne Gemberling, who is technical coordinator for the Chesapeake Conservancy and based at Susquehanna’s FRI, met Brown at a meeting of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Susquehanna, through the FRI, is one of several contributing partners in the Conservancy’s precision conservation program, “a new approach to restoration on agricultural land that uses high-resolution, geospatial analysis to better target and implement on-the-ground agricultural and conservation tactics,” Gemberling explains.
“The program relies on landowners like Chip to open up their land to the Conservancy to implement restoration projects that will not only improve the health of small streams, but ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.”
Through their work with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Unassessed Waters Initiative, which seeks to find and classify wild trout streams, Jon Niles, FRI director, along with students like junior
Brett Miller, visited Brown’s property several times over about two years. They recorded the creek’s water chemistry and the number and type of fish and aquatic insects to gain a baseline understanding of the stream’s health.
This laid the groundwork for the heavy restoration work along Brown’s segment of Elk Creek.
It included installing logs and boulders to stabilize the streambank and improve aquatic habitat and additional boulders to improve water flow. Thousands of seedlings and live stakes—willows, silky dogwood and redbuds—were planted to absorb additional runoff.
All of this was paid for through a grant Brown received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Conservancy.
“These are long-term projects, so over several years we’ll go back and monitor to see how the fish population and the water quality have changed after we’ve installed a stream restoration project,” Miller says.
“We’re a Band-Aid. We’re doing 1,800 feet of a stream that goes miles and miles,” Brown says. “But you already see the results of where silt is collecting and trout are in better numbers. But it doesn’t happen overnight; it takes some time.”
Brown, who describes himself as a kind of pied piper, has also brought some of his neighbors into the precision conservation fold, including his Amish neighbor whose property borders the other side of Elk Creek. That farmer now plans to create a buffer inside his pasture that would absorb runoff from his fields and the downspouts from his barn.
This kind of word-of-mouth encouragement is integral to the success of the project.
“I had to convince him that what we were going to do was going to benefit him,” Brown explains. “He’s accepted me, and he’s introduced me to other Amish neighbors.
“We’re pretty much rehabbing three-quarters of a mile of Elk Creek, which is no small feat,” Brown says. “Will I ever get to catch trout in my own stream? Haven’t yet, but the idea is that after I’m dead and gone, the fruits of my labor will pay dividends for future generations.”