Stream volunteers monitor Pennsylvania pipeline expansion through trout country

In a society where the convenience of clean, affordable energy continues to drive consumer demand for natural gas, concerned environmentalists continue to pay close attention to pipeline expansion and the impact such progress might have on local streams and watersheds.

For instance, three major gas pipeline projects are currently underway in eastern Pennsylvania alone, which has conservation groups like Trout Unlimited keeping tabs on the area’s fragile coldwater resources.

The Orion line, a 12.9-mile link by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company, is already under construction. The project calls for a 36-inch pipe to be run through Wayne and Pike Counties. The line will cross 31 water bodies – nine of which are designated as High Quality Cold Water Fisheries and 18 are tributaries to those waters – as well as two wild trout streams: Indian Orchard Brook and West Falls Creek.

The PennEast Pipeline by UGI is awaiting certification from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and still needs final permits from state agencies and the Delaware River Basin Commission. However, upon approval, the 120-mile line from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to Mercer County, New Jersey, would involve 269 water crossings, including 139 wild trout streams and 89 Exceptional Value or High Quality waters in Pennsylvania, including Shades Creek, Monocacy Creek and Fry’s Run (all Class A streams).

Finally, the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline by Williams has its certificate from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and includes nearly 200 miles of 30- to 42-inch pipe from Columbia to Lancaster Counties, involving 388 water body crossings.

“Whenever there is any kind of construction involving water crossings, there is reason to be concerned about the potential impact it may have on our wild trout streams,” Trout Unlimited Mid-Atlantic Policy Director Dave Kinney said. “Even though the permitting process is strict, it is important to make sure things are done the right way, so the wild trout that live here don’t suffer the consequences of that development.”

The worst-case scenario is that sediment disturbances cause such a drastic alteration in the turbidity of the stream, meaning there is too much dissolved solids and not enough oxygen, that the sensitive species inhabiting its waters cannot survive the change.

That’s why Trout Unlimited has put into place citizen-led stream-monitoring teams, which actively survey sites of interest on a monthly basis as a safeguard to the process.

Mid-Atlantic Angler Science Coordinator Jake Lemon trains this Coldwater Conservation Corps of volunteers to test streams for pH, conductivity, total dissolved solids, temperature, clarity, physical parameters, phosphate, nitrates and runoff, which serves as an indicator of changes to the physical, chemical and biological makeup of the streams.

“By having a knowledgeable cohort of stream stewards on the ground, we can effectively identify and report pollution issues quickly, mitigating potential damage to aquatic ecosystems,” Lemon said. “Also, agencies do not have the capacity to comprehensively monitor the multitude of headwater streams that are so important to brook trout. These volunteers fill those voids by collecting regular data that can be used to identify longer term trends in water quality.”

One such group is the Kidder Township Environmental Advisory Council, which consists of volunteers ranging in age from 20 to 70 and monitors 12 stream sites in Carbon County.

“Our surveys are a good baseline for future development,” retired science teacher Cathy Weber said.” We cover all the streams in our township that we have access to and we send our readings out to the lab at Dickinson College twice a year. So far we haven’t had anything come back as abnormal, but it’s still early in the development process.”

“Our main concerns are the pipelines and the PennEast compressor station,” said volunteer Len Tiscio, who along with his wife, Mary, monitors a site in Hickory Run State Park. “These are all pretty pristine areas, places that haven’t be driven on in years, and now they are going to be compressing the water table, which could really alter the streams. It is a potentially very scary situation.”

Unfortunately, the attitude is that our water has been fine all this time, so why worry about it, avid angler Bob Dobosh added. “But with all this development, I am concerned about our well water,” he said. “We all live here for a reason. Look around – it is a beautiful area, and the streams are important economically, not to mention they are all tributaries to the Lehigh River. One little mistake, and it can all be ruined pretty quickly.”

As TU Mid-Atlantic Organizer for Eastern Conservation Chad Chorney briefly admired the speckled beauty of a native brook trout he caught and released in Shades Creek, the stark reality set in that bulldozers were humming mere miles away.

With each work day, the pipeline construction inches closer and closer to Shades Creek and will inevitably cross it at some point. It’s hard not to wonder if this trout will survive to be caught again, or if it will simply become another casualty of societal progress.

Only time will tell.

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