Penn State students, citizen scientists take snapshot of Shaver’s Creek

Francisco Tutella
October 11, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Carrying a water bottle and a pH meter, Kelly Asselin climbed over a guardrail and headed downslope through burr bushes and high brush to the stream running under the roadway. With these simple tools, the Penn State student is helping scientists develop a clearer picture of water quality in the local watershed.

Asselin, a junior in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, was one of about 50 Penn State students and citizen scientists who took part in the Shaver’s Creek watershed snapshot sampling event on Saturday, Sept. 28. A collaboration between Penn State, Trout Unlimited, and Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, the event brought citizens and scientists together to assess water quality and help identify nutrients in the water at 55 sites throughout the watershed.

Penn State junior Kelly Asselin takes pH and temperature readings

Kelly Asselin, a junior in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, takes pH and temperature readings of a stream during the Shaver's Creek watershed snapshot sampling event on Sept. 28.

IMAGE: Francisco Tutella

“Agricultural runoff is a big problem for our water,” said Asselin, an earth science and policy major. “Not many people know about the environmental issues, especially in Pennsylvania. You hear about water issues in areas like Flint, Michigan, but except for acid mine drainage (AMD), you don’t really think of central Pennsylvania as having water problems.”

The fertilizers that farmers use to increase crop yield contain nutrients such as nitrate and sulfate. These nutrients can have adverse effects on the environment if washed into waterways, said Andrew Shaughnessy, a graduate student in the Department of Geosciences. He said that too much nitrate in lakes and other standing bodies of water can cause algal blooms, which deplete oxygen and lead to fish kills. Drinking water with high levels of nitrate can also pose serious health risks, especially to infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Agricultural practices today are not sustainable for the current world population of about 8 billion, let alone the projected 10 billion in the near future,” said Mike Forgeng, a graduate student studying hydrogeochemistry and organizer of the snapshot event.

Forgeng and students in GEOSC 413 “Techniques in Environmental Geochemistry” tested the samples in the laboratory for nitrate, sulfate, chloride and metals like iron and manganese. The class is taught by Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.

Mike Forgeng and students in GEOSC 413 “Techniques in Environmental Geochemistry” test the samples in the laboratory for nitrate, sulfate, chloride and metals like iron and manganese.

Mike Forgeng and students in GEOSC 413, Techniques in Environmental Geochemistry, tested water samples in the laboratory for nitrate, sulfate, chloride and metals like iron and manganese. The class is taught by Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State. 

IMAGE: Francisco Tutella

The students also analyzed the samples for buffering capacity, or water’s ability to sustain its pH level in the face of environmental changes, like AMD.

Forgeng said the group will post the results of the laboratory tests online. He will also plot the data on a watershed map to send to the volunteers and landowners who allowed the participants on their property to sample the water.

He emphasized the importance of involving the community, especially farmers and landowners, in events such as the snapshot day and scientific studies. He said scientists don’t want to impose restrictions on farmers but instead work with them to maximize crop yield using sustainable methods.

“We need to do as much research as we can to better understand our impacts on the environment, along with how we can work with farmers to produce more efficient nutrient management plans,” he said. “With the help of agricultural communities, we need to develop a plan to produce food for a growing population that does not degrade the ecosystems supporting those communities.”

Forgeng said that snapshot days could become annual events, allowing researchers to sample the watershed during different seasons to measure and identify seasonal changes.

“Events like this aren’t common,” Shaughnessy said. “Many people, when they do their sampling, pick five sites that they can get to in that day, come back the following week to sample five different sites and build a picture of an entire watershed. This event is interesting because we’re able to look at everything at one time. It makes everything comparable. We can say that on this one day this is what the watershed looked like.”

Funding was provided by a donation from Marilyn Fogel, Wilbur W. Mayhew Endowed Professor of Geoecology and director of the Environmental Dynamics and GeoEcology (EDGE) Institute at the University of California, Riverside, and the National Science Foundation-supported Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 14, 2019