PA Water Quality Monitoring Efforts – A Meeting Summary


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

Pennsylvania side of the Delaware Water Gap

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – CHEC

Despite the concerns that shale gas drilling can or has deteriorated our water quality in the Marcellus Shale region, I think it is also important to recognize the incredible efforts underway to improve and protect our water. A few weeks ago, I attended a Marcellus Shale Water Monitoring Programs Meeting hosted by the Somerset Conservation District in Johnstown, PA. Below is a summary of the meeting and future plans.

I want to first thank Melissa Reckner, Director of the Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team, for coordinating the meeting and allowing me to present during it.
One of the points that really struck me about this meeting and the Marcellus Shale drilling boom, in general, is the effect that this industry is having on water monitoring and private well water testing; according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), approximately a million households rely on private water supplies. Private wells are not regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however. As a result, private wells can often contain contaminants such as coliform bacteria. Since shale gas drilling has increased in the Commonwealth, we have also seen an increase in the rate that people are testing their private water wells and monitoring surface water quality. Although this is mostly due to how close drilling can occur near drinking water sources and surface waters, as a public health professional, I am just glad to see that people are paying more attention to the quality of their water. Here is additional information about private water wells from the PADEP.

To give you a better idea of the extent of this meeting and the level of interest expressed regarding monitoring PA’s surface waters, below is a portion of the groups represented in the Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s beautiful building that day:

  • Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (Dickinson College)
  • Armstrong Conservation District
  • Blacklick Creek Watershed Association
  • Cambria County Conservation District
  • Cambria County EMA
  • Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (Univ. of Pgh.)
  • Concurrent Technology Corp.
  • Evergreen Conservancy
  • Foundation for PA Watersheds
  • Greater Johnstown Water Authority
  • Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
  • Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team
  • Kiskiminetas Watershed Association
  • PA Department of Environmental Protection
  • PA Senior Environmental Corps
  • Shade Creek Watershed Association
  • Somerset Conservation District
  • Southern Alleghenies Conservancy
  • Southern Alleghenies Resource Conservation and Development Council
  • Stewardship and Sustainability for Goodness Sake
  • Stonycreek Conemaugh River Improvement Project
  • Trout Run Watershed Association
  • Trout Unlimited
  • Tubmill Trout Club
  • United Bowhunters of PA
  • University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

The purpose of the meeting was to introduce the various watershed groups and organizations to the options presently available for collecting water monitoring data, ways to store and share that data (where FracTracker’s DataTool came in), and the training programs available to get people started.

ALLARM Volunteer Monitoring Protocol

Jinnie Woodward, Assistant Director of ALLARM – the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring at Dickinson College, provided a summary of ALLARM and highlighted their Marcellus Shale Gas Extraction Volunteer Monitoring Protocol that debuted in Bradford County this summer. Woodward said the objectives of ALLARM’s Marcellus Shale Monitoring Program are to:

  1. Provide an early detection of contamination in small streams, not rivers, because river dynamics are so variable;
  2. Prevent future environmental impacts through the presence of watchful residents; and
  3. Document stream quality.

The parameters that indicate contamination according to Woodward are: conductivity, Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), Barium, and Strontium. Volunteers can feasibly measure conductivity, TDS, and flow. Conductivity measures the ability of water to pass an electrical current. TDS measures the amount of ions dissolved in water. Monitoring both makes data more usable. Barium and Strontium occur naturally deep underground and are indicators of the presence of Marcellus Shale flowback fluid should it reach surface waters.

Volunteers can also conduct visual assessments of areas where they are monitoring. Visual assessments attempt to identify potential impacts and report suspicious activities. Impacts could include:

  • Earth Disturbances – at the well pad, storage and staging areas, streams, and access roads. Look for unstable outlets, sediment plumes, and little or no gravel on the roads.
  • Spills and discharges – Consider odor, discoloration, foam, bubbles, etc.
  • Water withdrawals, especially in unusually low flow areas – Interestingly, western PA does not have signs posted at streams indicating approved water withdrawal areas.
  • Gas migration or leakage – Look for bubbling.

ALLARM trains volunteers how to access permits from the PADEP and will help determine monitoring locations based on gas well location and stream access. Learn more about ALLARM’s water monitoring program here [link removed].

Water Quality Monitoring Joint Venture

[image removed]
Somerset Conservation District
Manager Len Lichvar with an
in-stream data logger prior to its
placement in a Somerset County
waterway. (Submitted photo)
Source: Daily American

Len Lichvar, District Manager of the Somerset Conservation District and Eric Null, Aquatic Biologist with the same, spoke of the District’s Water Quality Monitoring Joint Venture, of which the Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team and United States Geologic Survey (USGS) are primary partners.

Lichvar stated that over a year and a half ago, these partners started conversations on how to monitor Marcellus Shale and other pollution sources in an effort to be proactive, not reactive, and innovative, using technology, as was done decades ago with Abandoned Mine Drainage. These groups decided to utilize in-stream data loggers, manufactured by Solinst. These loggers can collect conductivity, temperature and water level.

While Marcellus Shale drove the initiative, it is useful for other types of pollution, including historic sources and new mines. This project can bring to light other issues and serve as an early warning system. It can also fill in data gaps. Lichvar emphasized the importance of prevention – potentially saving millions of dollars by warding of catastrophe – as opposed to fixing major environmental problems once they occur.

Objectives of the Water Quality Monitoring Joint Venture:

  1. Provide an efficient, continuous water quality monitoring network throughout Somerset County.
  2. Monitor other effects of deep mine seeps, Marcellus Shale drilling, and historic pollution sources.
  3. Establish a publicly accessible database.

The District is obtaining these objectives by:

  1. Deploying continuous recording data loggers.
  2. Strategically placing loggers in areas of known disturbance.
  3. Decreasing the number of volunteers necessary to monitor streams 24/7.
  4. Decreasing hours invested and the cost of monitoring.
  5. Partnering with USGS to incorporate this project with their data collection at water quality stations. (USGS will incorporate the District’s data onto their website and is retrofitting gauging stations in Somerset County to also collect conductivity in real-time.)

Null spoke about the rational for monitoring conductivity, from which TDS can be derived. Mining increases TDS, and Marcellus Shale flowback water has high TDS. Conductivity is a life-limiting factor. Null said coalmine discharges generate conductivity levels between 1,500-10,000 us/cm and that 3,500-5,500 us/cm is most common. He said 10,000 us/cm is the upper limit for freshwater life, but Marcellus Shale flowback water can have conductivity levels of over 50,000 us/cm, 5x the upper limit of freshwater life! Null had a copy of flowback data provided by a gas company. He noted that chlorides are the biggest component and threatens to turn our freshwater streams to saltwater.

The District has an established groundwater monitoring program in which water levels at 16 wells throughout Somerset County are monitored monthly. This year, the District purchased a $1,300 Solinst meter to not only monitor the water levels in these wells, but collect conductivity and temperature readings. The meter can detect slight seepage of TDS if it occurs in the wells.

Benefits of the data loggers:

  1. They can monitor conductivity levels from 0-80,000 us/cm (+/- 20 us/cm), making them very accurate.
  2. They can monitor in time increments of your choice. The District has their loggers set to monitor every 15 minutes, 24/7.
  3. The loggers have a 5-year battery life.
  4. They can store at least 30,000 data sets. The District downloads data every two weeks.
  5. They are small and portable.
  6. Only one person is needed to download data.
  7. One logger might equal the manpower of five volunteers.
  8. Temperature readings can also be used to show if a stream is a coldwater fishery!

The Somerset Conservation District now has eight loggers in its possession, six of which are deployed. The other two will be installed within the next two weeks. They are collecting baseline data. The USGS is retrofitting existing Hydrologic Stations with conductivity probes. There are five USGS stations in Somerset County. Three of them are currently online, streaming conductivity to the USGS website.

Lichvar and Null cautioned that if you see a spike, it could be historic pollution. Investigate the cause or source before ‘crying wolf’. Learn more about the data loggers here [link removed].

Trout Unlimited Marcellus Monitoring Training Program

David Sewak, Trout Unlimited’s Marcellus Shale Field Organizer, then presented. The PA Council of Trout Unlimited worked with ALLARM to create a Coldwater Conservation Corps (CCC), complete with field manuals and trainings.

Sewak is working with Trout Unlimited chapters across the state to host volunteer trainings. The trainings are one-day and include information about:

  • Marcellus Shale – what it is and where it is.
  • Erosion and sedimentation, and other issues with the industry that go beyond the well pad(s).
  • Water usage and land uses (Sewak said a vertical well might use 80,000 gallon of water per well, whereas a horizontal well can use up to 5 million gallons per well.)
  • Who to contact. Volunteers are not police, but reporters.
  • Maintain validity.
  • Safety.
  • Water monitoring (TDS, pH, temperature, cross sections).
  • Getting latitude/longitude for each monitoring site.

After lunch, participants receive hands-on training on how to use the equipment provided in each kit. Trout Unlimited chapters that host a training will receive two kits, and additional ones can be purchased for about $300.

Most Marcellus Shale activity is occurring where transmission lines are in place (Tioga and Green Counties). Trout Unlimited wants to get as many people as possible trained. Volunteers who are trained serve as stream stewards by accepting monitoring and surveillance responsibility for one or more stream segments. Each Trout Unlimited chapter should appoint a Marcellus Shale Coordinator who can manage data generated by CCC volunteers and serve as a liaison with Sewak, Deb Nardone, and the PATU environmental committee.

Sewak stated that local action tied into a larger strategy allows personalized inputs to connect to statewide effort. Baseline data are critical! He said data gathered will be synthesized with other data and incorporated into TU’s Conservation Success Index (CSI). Analysis will produce a blueprint for action to conserve fish, fisheries, and coldwater resources.

Upcoming TU trainings:

  • January 15 at the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve in Latrobe (Forbes Trail TU)
  • January 29 in Dubois
  • February 12 in Washington County
  • March 19 in Lucinda (Clarion County)

You must pre-register for these trainings. The cost is only $17.50, which is an introductory rate of half the price of an adult TU membership. Volunteers must be TU members for liability reasons. Trout Unlimited will provide a Decision Tree pocket guide that provides guidelines for who (what agency) to approach when problems arise.

Trout Unlimited Chapters are working with counties to monitor Marcellus Shale activities and create more partnerships. At this time, Pennsylvania’s Trout Unlimited is not sharing information and data gathered with other states in Eastern U.S. only because PA is the only state with detailed data and an understanding of the topic.

FracTracker and its Trainings

FracTracker DataTool in use,
displaying pipeline incidents
Jan-July 2010.
(The pop-up box is showing info
about one record on the map.)

I then went on to discuss the features of FracTracker, not just as a data repository but also as a way to share information using maps. Learn more about how the system works by clicking here or visiting the DataTool directly.

The Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC) is in charge of managing FracTracker – both the blog (this site) and DataTool components. We are also responsible for training people how to use it. If you would like to know how to navigate the blog and DataTool, upload and download data, and visualize that data into snapshots, please contact us! There is no charge to attend or request our training sessions. They typically last 3 hours and can be conducted for groups of 10 to 50 people. Venues must have Internet access so that participants can access the blog and DataTool online. CHEC has conducted training and informational sessions about FracTracker across PA, NY, OH, and WV, so geographic location is not an issue.

You can request a training in your area by contacting me directly:, 412-624-9379. (Email requests preferred.)