Creek Connections

Part of the Knowing Our Waters Project

By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement
Maps by Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

Prior articles of the Knowing Our Waters digital storytelling series have brought attention to how community-based water monitoring efforts are responding to the risks of oil and gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale. These issues have ranged from concerns about improper disposal of wastewater, to the problems of shipping drilling muds and solids, to landfills in New York State. One of the consistent findings that comes from studies of such community-based water monitoring efforts is that people who participate in these programs are often older adults, typically 40-60 years of age (Jalbert et al.; Brasier et al.). This feature can be due to the fact that older adults often have spare time to do public service. In other instances these volunteers may have a personal stake in monitoring watersheds neighboring their property, or are driven by a desire to protect their families from potential water pollution threats.

In the Marcellus Shale region, many monitoring groups welcome the involvement of younger generations in their programs. However, they also point to the difficulties of finding younger volunteers who see watershed monitoring as an important way to ensure environmental sustainability in their community.

In this fourth installment of the Knowing Our Waters series we turn our attention to how water monitoring is being used as a tool to create lifelong environmental stewardship in younger generations – specifically through a program called Creek Connections. By introducing water monitoring into primary and secondary education, these programs may indeed create effective pathways to increase the diversity of future volunteer monitoring efforts and build long-term capacity for environmental stewardship.

History of Creek Connections

While there are a number of programs that aim to bring youth into watershed protection in the Marcellus Shale, this article focuses on one of the more prominent efforts: a partnership between Allegheny College and regional K-12 schools called Creek Connections. The origins of Creek Connections can be traced to French Creek, a headwater of the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania, which is one of the most biologically diverse streams in the Northeast United States. It is estimated to host more than 80 species of fish and 26 species of freshwater mussels. Because of its high value, nationally and regionally, many projects have worked to protect the watershed over the years including improvements to agricultural and sewer runoff, controlling invasive species, and reestablishing riparian buffer zones in order to reduce sedimentation and maintain cold water fishing habitats. Two professors at Allegheny College also realized the potential to use French Creek as an avenue to create robust environmental education programs in local public schools. The “French Creek Environmental Education Project” was thus launched in 1995 with funding from the Toyota USA Foundation in five nearby schools.

By 1999 the French Creek Environmental Education Project had grown to work with 22 schools throughout Western Pennsylvania and neighboring states, and was renamed Creek Connections. Today Creek Connections supports a wide range of watershed centric programming with more than 40 schools. Over these many years the program has turned the region’s waterways into “outdoor environmental laboratories” by working with students to collect water samples for a range of testing protocols. Meanwhile, in the classroom, these students learn about how stream conditions can change due to impacts from resource extraction, agricultural runoff, deforestation and expanding urbanization.

Map of schools participating in Creek Connections, the watersheds in which they monitor, and nearby oil & gas wells. View fullscreen

A Year-Round Educational Experience

Many teachers note that classroom-based environmental education programs must contend with the problems of longevity. Sustained engagements with a particular topic can be hampered by curriculum modules that may delve into watershed health concerns for a few weeks out of the year, but are not geared to longer-term field research. Additional issues arise when teachers must weigh how they will use limited school resources. Program managers at Creek Connections encountered these stumbling blocks when forming early partnerships with schools. As a result of these learned lessons Creek Connections has evolved to provide a range of opportunities for student participation, as well as structured programming to enroll teachers to invest in water monitoring programs.

The Summer Institute

The Creek Connections school year begins in mid-August at the Summer Institute where participating teachers visit Allegheny College for a one-day workshop. At this workshop teachers receive free equipment and classroom materials for the upcoming school year. The Summer Institute is also the core training session for teachers who will go on to propagate Creek Connections’ monitoring protocols. Sessions cover the methodologies for water chemistry tests, biological sampling, and habitat assessments. The institute also conducts field excursions to French Creek and other nearby streams where teachers become intimately familiar with the creeks where students will conduct water quality sampling.

Water Monitoring & Student Research

Once the school year begins, students participating in Creek Connections visit their field sites every few weeks. Each class is provided with equipment to conduct basic water quality tests, both in the field and the lab. Creek Connections staff accompany students each time they perform their water quality tests. This helps to insure accuracy in testing. Students also benefit educationally by having watershed specialists on site. In addition to testing basic parameters at field sites, each school designs and conducts independent projects relating to water quality, watersheds, and stream ecology. Some of the issues addressed in these projects have included e-coliform, comparison of different streams and geological formations, benthic macroinvertebrate and fish sampling, as well as surveys of the history of waterway. Similar to how Creek Connections provides free resources to schools for monitoring, student research projects are also given a budget to order equipment in order to contend with the problems of limited classroom resources. Bridging this resource barrier has been particularly important in the inner-city schools of Pittsburgh.

The Student Research Symposium

The culminating event of the year is the annual Student Research Symposium held in April where all participating schools convene to share their research findings. Students reflect on the year’s water monitoring effort and meet student groups from other schools. More important, those who participate in the symposium present on their in-depth research projects. Teachers attest that this moves discussions about environmental to a higher level of communication. One important outcome of the Research Symposium is in witnessing the range of research that has been done across the region’s watersheds, as well as the diversity of students invested in watershed protection. Students also have opportunities to interact with federal, state and local environmental professionals at the symposium. Many of these students develop a keen interest in environmental studies as a result, and will go on to take AP environmental studies courses in later years.

Assessing Water Quality & Water Pollution

The big question posed to students throughout the Creek Connections program is: Why should we study watersheds? The answer to this question is straightforward to Creek Connections staff and affiliated teachers. The more that students learn about their watersheds, the more likely they will understand the importance of protecting them. Furthermore, water quality data collected by Creek Connections forms a baseline of knowledge to address unknown future issues.  As one staff member noted, no one would have predicted the breadth and intensity of natural gas drilling in the area only a few years ago.

Along these lines, classroom presentations cover the foundational concepts of watersheds such as why they are formed, what constitutes a watershed boundary, and how water flows through tributaries into major rivers. Throughout this process students also learn how to read topographical maps and about the requirements for clean drinking water. These classroom modules begin to contextualize the science of water monitoring into place-based and issue-oriented discussions.

In the field, students collect and analyze samples for the core parameters of temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, total dissolved solids, phosphorus, nitrogen, turbidity and alkalinity. Perhaps more important, students learn the fundamental concepts for why these parameters are critical to understanding watershed health. All the data from these tests are later logged into the Creek Connections website. Students who participated in the monitoring, as well as the general public, can access the data to conduct seasonal and geographic trend analysis and to do site comparisons. These not only offer offer opportunities for year-round educational opportunities using findings from field site visits, but also serves to inform the public about nearby water quality.

Many of Creek Connections’ groups conduct macroinvertebrate assessments in addition to collecting water samples. Affiliated teachers note that this is one of the most impactful experiences for students who participate in the program. Having first-hand encounters with crayfish, dragonflies, and other aquatic insects and wildlife, reveals to students a diversity of life they might not have expected of their neighborhood streams.

Finally, as a water quality monitoring program, pollution is a major topic in the Creek Connections curriculum. In addition to covering how agricultural runoff, deforestation, acid rain, sewage overflow, and urbanization affect the region’s waterways, students learn about the impacts of the region’s longstanding relationship with extraction industries. Teaching modules note that, of the 8.6% of polluted streams in Pennsylvania, the biggest threat (56% or 2,596 miles) can be attributed to coal, oil, and gas resource extraction. In fact, the extent of oil and gas extraction in watersheds monitored by Creek Connections can be seen in the map located at the top of this article.

However, Creek Connections’ goal is not to sway students’ opinions on the relative efficacies of resource extraction.  Staying true to its mission as a scientific research project, students are instead educated on the differences between point and non-point pollution, the chemistry behind water impacts from extraction waste flows, and how watershed scientists have managed these pollution sources. This emphasis on understanding the science of water pollution is also considered critical to illustrating the complexities of pollution in environmental debates.

The Next Generation of Volunteers

FracTracker joins Creek Connections staff and students for their stream monitoring day.

Given that many of the students who participate in Creek Connections live in extraction communities, one must wonder how the program changes their perspective on watershed health and its eminent threats. Furthermore, because watersheds are intricately connected, students likely come to realize that impacts they see in their own community also affect communities downstream. This drives home a root ethos in environmental sustainability education – act locally, think globally – or as one student handout in the Creek Connections curriculum states:

It is important to realize that if we contaminate the water running into the waterway, we also contaminate the waterway itself. Furthermore, by contaminating the waterway, we also affect our neighbors downstream from us who will suffer from the water we are polluting.

In learning about Creek Connections, one interesting observation is that its curriculum is remarkably similar to programs offered by some of the major organizations that train adults to monitor watersheds for oil and gas impacts in the Marcellus Shale. Given the successes of programs like Creek Connections in getting students invested at an early age in watershed protection, we can only hope that on the other side these students will continue their commitments to environmental education – formally or informally – and contribute later in life to building long-term capacity for the region’s watershed advocacy community.

We wish to thank Wendy Kedzierski and her fellow staff at Creek Connections for assistance in writing this article.

For more information, please contact Kirk Jalbert: