Water quality, rivertowns and greenways…

Preparing the test for alkalinity in stream water near the headwaters of Buffalo Creek.

Once again based on campus, the BotS crew continues to examine the many different aspects of the Susquehanna River watershed. Starting at the headwaters of Buffalo Creek, we had the opportunity on Monday to take a variety of water quality samples as the creek progresses toward the Susquehanna River. In the mountains, with water flowing through inert bedrock, the stream is highly responsive to changes in acidity. Due to concerns of acid rain affecting the ecology of this portion of Buffalo Creek, the local watershed alliance has constructed a set of artificial wetlands that filter the water through limestone and organic materials to buffer acid and add alkalinity (which increases the water’s ability to resist changes in acidity). These ponds are fundamentally the same as the acid mine drainage mitigation ponds we visited in coal country a few weeks back.

There is a wide range of factors that can influence water quality, from land use (forested, agricultural, urban, etc.) to specific point sources such as farms and sewage treatment plants that impact water quality. As we progressed through the watershed, testing near a water treatment facility and just downstream from farm with a few cows actually standing in the stream (suspiciously, the nitrate reading was off the charts just downstream from the bathing bovines).

Tuesday we were joined by Dr. Ben Marsh, who guided us around the regions rivertowns, pointing out features of the cultural landscape that subtly illuminate the attitudes and behaviors that define a region. Rural Pennsylvania, which can be historically described as conservative state, displays that conservatism through homogenous architecture, the 4-on-4 house (four rooms on the top floor over four rooms on the first floor, ridge of the roof parallel to the road, etc.). In this context, conservatism is not so distinctly a religious or political mindset, though that is associated with the concept, conservatism is the attitude that the past is the model for the present, that it is worth “conserving”, and should not be deviated from.

All but abandoned factory complex in Milton, Pa., the regional industrial center.

However, change is coming over the land, and new elements are emerging on the landscape that would not have even been possible a few decades ago. If not for the great reliance we have put on the automobile, the Lycoming Mall and shopping centers would not be economically feasible. Nonetheless, this cultural shift allows these satellite retail centers to function away from the traditional small-town downtown. Similarly, a warehouse for Grizzly.com near Pennsdale and a large trucking distribution center in Milton exist not because of intrinsic local demand, but because Internet sales and interstate highways defy local logic, but are rapidly becoming signs of our modern age.

At the conclusion of our trip, Dr. Marsh referred to Bucknell sociology professor Dr. Carl Milofsky’s description of the region around Lewisburg. According to Milofsky, the area is like a small city that has been pulled apart, with Lewisburg, “the town at Bucknell, as the wealthy suburb, Milton (actually named as an abbreviation of Mill town) as the industrial district, and so forth.

Wednesday brought us to Williamsport, to talk with planners for the Susquehanna Greenway, a region-wide collaboration of parks, trails, natural spaces designed to encourage citizens and visitors to connect to the valuable resource that is the river. In Williamsport, the town experienced a disconnect with the river due to the construction of the levy system to protect the town from flooding. While it is understandable that such a wall would be built, the citizens of Williamsport still wanted a way to interact with the river, and so the River Walk was born. To better appreciate the project, we took about a two-mile stroll on the paved trail, paying special attention to the interpretive plaques telling the history of the Williamsport area.

The River Walk is an approximately four mile-long loop along the levies, accessible to bicycles, lunchtime walkers, and those wanting to try their fishing rods in the river. The Susquehanna Greenway commission has put years of work into projects such as this, aiming to eventually connect trails such as the River Walk, the Pine Creek Rail Trail and others into a network that reaches well into New York State. For more information, their website tells more about the projects they hope will be eventually be recognized as the country’s first national greenway.

The Susquehanna Greenways River Walk along the levy at Williamsport, Pa., on a gorgeous fall day.

On a side note, the offices housing much of the Greenway’s activity and planning are adjacent to a Marcellus Shale frackwater processing facility. Over the short period of time that we were near the facility in our out-and-back from Water Tower Square, over a dozen trucks came and went, depositing their cargo into massive storage tanks. The site has been in operation since April of this year, with a capacity of 400,000 gallons per day, receiving deliveries 20 hours per day on weekdays, and 24 hours per day on weekends. Even where wells are not actively being drilled the entire region has been inescapably affected by the swarm of activity associated with the Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Boom.

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