Susquehanna monitors provide water quality info to river enthusiasts, scientists

Oct. 14, 2009
LEWISBURG, PA, Oct. 14, 2009 -- Every five minutes, devices in the Susquehanna River near Milton, Danville and Selinsgrove measure the temperature, salt content and other water quality characteristics and send the information to a laboratory at Bucknell University...

LEWISBURG, PA, Oct. 14, 2009 -- Every five minutes, devices in the Susquehanna River near Milton, Danville and Selinsgrove measure the temperature, salt content and other water quality characteristics and send the information to a laboratory at Bucknell University.

The data is channeled to a website in real time, making it available to fishermen, canoeists, environmentalists and others interested in the health of the river. And it is analyzed by Matt McTammany, an assistant professor of biology and environmental studies at Bucknell whose research focuses on how natural and manmade activities affect water quality and habitat in rivers and streams -- literally minute by minute.

Human activities ranging from recreation and highway runoff to discharge from water treatment plants and drilling for natural gas in Marcellus Shale, along with weather, contribute to water quality fluctuation in the Susquehanna, said McTammany, an aquatic ecologist. Water quality has improved during the past several decades as sewage treatment plants stopped dumping raw sewage into the river, farmers introduced more environmentally friendly practices and mining has been remediated, to a degree. But water quality remains a concern in the river, which is part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

"If the river is enriched, the instruments will show a high amount of algae," he said. "We measure a variety of things. It changes daily, seasonally and every year. The changes depend on water levels and on human activity. We look at it from a scientific perspective and what we can learn about the river and how it functions."

Real-time data
McTammany worked with two students this past summer: biology and psychology major Cathy Meade, Class of '11, and Kasei Kochel, a Pennsylvania State University student whose father is a Bucknell geology professor, to place and collect data from instruments attached to cinder blocks in the Susquehanna. The team also installed real-time sensors at water treatment facilities in Milton and Danville to record qualities of the river such as temperature, turbidity, oxygen content and salt content. The information is available at:

McTammany's research is part of a collaborative research project involving the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies, a consortium including Bucknell and five universities as well as Geisinger Health Systems and area conservation organizations. The work and about $80,000 in equipment for McTammany's river monitoring is funded with grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the Degenstein Foundation, another unnamed private foundation, the Forum for Pennsylvania's Heartland and the Foundation for Pennsylvania's Watersheds.

Pennsylvania American Water and Danville Borough Water Co. allowed McTammany to use their facilities for his research.

Collaborative effort
Each of the universities is concentrating on a different aspect of river research. Bucknell's primary contribution is water quality monitoring; Bloomsburg University is focusing on water chemistry; King's College is surveying fish populations; Lycoming College is examining benthic macroinvertebrates or various insects; and Susquehanna University is monitoring algae.

McTammany, a Bucknell alumnus who graduated in 1995, became interested in the river and water quality while he was conducting undergraduate research on groundwater bacteria in the Montandon Marsh with retired Professor Wayne McDiffett. McTammany was hired as a Bucknell professor in 2003.

But he also is interested as a local resident. What happens in the North and West branches of the Susquehanna ultimately affects what happens downstream, for better or worse, McTammany noted.

"We're raising awareness of the current state of things and using this as a valuable educational research tool," he said. "There's a lot to be gained from engaging our university, faculty and students and having them interact with broader state and federal agencies. Everything we do here affects the Chesapeake Bay because we are part of the same watershed. We might not see the patterns now, but we might see them over time."

A personal connection
The river project has made McTammany, who grew up in Shillington, Pa., and the students feel more connected to the river. Meade and Kochel said they had kayaked on the river but hadn't thought much about the river before working with McTammany on his research. The research made them think about the correlation between agriculture and fish kills and the proliferation of invasive plants in river habitat.

"People need to know about it. It's a big deal to have live (water quality) data," Meade said.

McTammany and the students also learned that the North Branch of the Susquehanna is generally much cloudier than the West Branch and that water from the branches does not immediately blend at the confluence, where they meet.

'Study abroad'
McTammany, who also is the director of Bucknell's Environmental Center, will jointly teach a "domestic study abroad program" on the Susquehanna in fall 2010. Geology Professor Craig Kochel, Kasai Kochel's father, and Peter Wilshusen, an associate professor of environmental studies, will lead an exploration of the human-environmental and land-water interactions through the natural and cultural history, patterns, and processes in the Susquehanna River Valley.

The semester will include field-based integrative learning, extensive travel throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and other sites abroad, river kayak sojourns, interdisciplinary student research and visits with water resource managers.