Print this page

The Importance of Water

The region slowly weaves a web of groups to protect the watershed
Quaker Valley High School students joined Eric Chapman, director of aquatic science at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, during a fish shocking in Little Sewickley Creek. Quaker Valley High School students joined Eric Chapman, director of aquatic science at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, during a fish shocking in Little Sewickley Creek.
Rate this item
(2 votes)

Watershed expert April Claus called to the 20 Quaker Valley High students splashing through a creek bed in their muck boots: “Who wants to release the brown trout?” They were part of Claus’s environmental science internship — the Quaker Valley Creekers. And on that autumn day they waded into Little Sewickley Creek, releasing some fish and collecting others.

That’s how you get the kids hooked,” said Claus. “Give them a meaningful project that they are a part of, that they are going to remember.” The youngsters awaited the job of “electrofishing,” in which a metal rod sends up to 300 volts into the water, briefly stunning fish so students could net them and place them into buckets. Among the fish found that day were Creek Chub, Central Stonerollers, White Suckers, Black Nose and Long Nose Dace, Sculpin, and some Darter species.

The creek didn’t always have as many species upstream. Claus remembers sampling a mile up from the Ohio River in 2009 and noticing something was wrong. “Every time we went below this dam we found about 30-​plus species of fish, and every time we went above the dam, we found like six.”

The dam built in 1928 to supply water for a local estate had fallen in disrepair, halting fish from migrating any farther upstream from the Ohio River. Before the dam, the free-​flowing creek had a high diversity of fish. Then, as the land was clear-​cut for development, the more sensitive species died out from exposure to runoff, and higher water temperature and sedimentation. The dam was removed in 2015, replenishing biodiversity along the entire 17.8 miles of the stream. “We are seeing things that we never saw upstream in my 12 years here,” Claus said. “It was a rapid response.”

Removing that old dam on Little Sewickley Creek was the result of pooled efforts and resources from several state and local watershed organizations. And just as Little Sewickley Creek is a small but integral stream that flows into the much larger Ohio River, its watershed association is part of something much larger — a kind of patchwork network — that protects western Pennsylvania’s larger water ecosystem.

A variety of overseers

As with many parts of the country, efforts to protect the Pittsburgh region watershed have been of a motley nature, ranging from small, local and largely volunteer watershed groups to multi-​state, federal commissions with broad jurisdiction.

Pennsylvania’s three main waterways are under the official oversight of three such commissions: The Delaware River Basin Commission, The Susquehanna River Basin Commission and the Ohio River Basin Sanitation Commission. The latter, ORSANCO, was created in 1948 to control and abate pollution in the Ohio River Basin. It has jurisdiction over Pittsburgh’s major waterways, as well as vast swaths of New York, West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Indiana and Illinois. ORSANCO programs focus on improving water quality by “setting wastewater discharge standards, performing biological assessments, monitoring for the chemical and physical properties of the waterways,” and coordinating emergency response activities for spills or accidental discharges.

ORSANCO feels that it does a good job listening to the many organizations working to revitalize and protect the watershed, and while ORSANCO commissioners are mostly retired or acting members of the Environmental Protection Agency, volunteers from all eight states comprise its committees. “We have excellent representation in our committees,” said Lisa Cochran, ORSANCO communications coordinator. “For instance, we have a power industry committee, they bring issues to the commission on what are the energy companies doing, what do they need, what are their issues, and we also have a watershed committee, and those tend to be the conservationists. Those individuals have equal representation with ORSANCO. We bring as many of those small organizations together as possible through our committee structure.”

Smaller watershed groups have mixed feelings about ORSANCO. “It’s a good thing they’re there, because who would be there?” said Youghiogheny Riverkeeper Eric Harder of the Mountain Watershed Association, which uses state and federal laws to protect Youghiogheny River watersheds in court. Harder respects ORSANCO but wishes it would take a more aggressive stance on issues affecting the watershed’s health.

Dr. Stanley Kabala, retired associate director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, wishes ORSANCO had as much authoritative pull as the neighboring Delaware and Susquehanna Commissions — or as much funding as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The Susquehanna and Delaware commissions, Kabala says, monitor and legally enforce water withdrawal and pollution standards. “I’d like to have a commission with real clout, real regulatory power.”

An example to the east

Perhaps the most unusual thing about local efforts to protect the waters of Western Pennsylvania is their proximity to the organization that is known as the national gold standard for watershed oversight and protection — the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Formed in 1967, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation manages the Chesapeake Bay as it stretches through parts of Eastern Pennsylvania along with six other states and the District of Columbia. The Bay is also managed by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an arm of the EPA.

However, the clout of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is such that, nine years ago, it sued the EPA, claiming the agency had failed to take adequate measures to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay under the Clean Water Act and the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. The EPA settled the suit and established a strict pollution diet — or total maximum daily load — to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The Chesapeake Bay topic burns a lot of us up in the Ohio River watershed,” said Rebecca Zeyzus, executive director of the Allegheny Watershed Alliance and leader of the municipal stormwater program at the Allegheny County Conservation District. “Chesapeake Bay gets much more support, more grant opportunities, more coverage, and I do not think that suing the EPA to get more involvement in our watershed would get the same results.”

The Allegheny Watershed Alliance was created in 2016 to give a variety of kinds of support to smaller local watershed groups. And there are many — Allegheny County alone has nine.

Zeyzus and April Claus theorize that the Chesapeake may be held in such high regard because of its food supply (oysters, mussels, crabs and clams) and tourism draw. The Ohio River, by comparison, is more of a working waterway, mostly used for shipping. According to members of Zeyzus’s group and others, if Western Pennsylvania watersheds were held in as high regard as the Chesapeake Bay, the chance for more federal funding and larger organizational management might be possible.

We are not in the Chesapeake Bay so we do not get any of that funding,” said Amy Miller, watershed specialist and watershed program leader for the conservation district. “The Ohio River Watershed is kind of forgotten, because Kentucky has not sued Pennsylvania for their pollution yet.”

Eric Chapman, director of aquatic science at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, believes that the Pennsylvania section of the Ohio River is so small, just 40 miles, that it may be overlooked despite its origin in Pittsburgh. “The whole headwaters of the Ohio come from Pennsylvania and New York, but I think what we have in Pennsylvania is so urbanized that it’s not well represented, I guess.”

Smaller groups working together

While the Commissions are good for getting large-​scale projects covered, such as sewer runoff management and educating the public, they can sometimes be inattentive to each community’s needs, which is where state’s 66 county conservation districts get involved. These state-​funded districts, under the state Dept. of Environmental Protection, seek to protect, soil, air, wildlife and water. Allegheny County’s Conservation District is one of the largest in the state, with nearly 20 full-​time employees.

Recently, during a Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Assessment walk, representatives of the Allegheny Watershed Alliance, Allegheny Conservation District and the Fern Hollow Nature Center discussed the need for partnership among larger commissions and smaller organizations.

It’s sort of grassroots up, you need both ends to be working towards each other, you need that support,” said Zeyzus, adding that most nonprofit watershed groups are community members working where they live. For such groups to succeed, sharing resources is necessary, which is why her Allegheny Watershed Alliance is urging the creation of inter-​municipal watershed groups. For instance, if every borough had a designated watershed specialist, Claus believes it might enhance chances for success.

Claus not only serves on the board of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association but also works as a naturalist at Fern Hollow Nature Center for the Borough of Sewickley. She holds a position not many municipalities support as a designated watershed specialist, and she acknowledged that the watershed would receive more care if every borough had someone like her. “They (Sewickley) find value in having somebody like me manage trails, the park lands, habitat project, but right now one of my jobs is to work with the local watershed association.”

Watershed advocates worry about funding cuts because of state budget woes. With a lack of support from the state budget, communities and advocates step up to carry the burden of watershed management.

There’s no template for what we’re doing,” Zeyzus said. “Ours is evolving as we see these needs arise, and saying ‘Oh okay, I think we can fit in here.’” The Allegheny Watershed Alliance attempts to be resourceful and creative, designing eye-​catching flyers, logos and inventive creative marketing. “We are trying to make watershed groups sexy.”

How the Chesapeake Bay Foundation came about

Across the Chesapeake watershed, blue and white bumper stickers with the emblem of a seagull are a common sight to travelers making their way towards the bay. These travelers may be on their way to work within the marble halls of the Maryland state house or to stroll along the docks of Annapolis, but most likely they’re venturing to the heart of the bay, where the wild ponies run along the marsh beaches of Chincoteague. Those who paste the stickers on their cars are more than likely one of the 240,000 members of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), which encompasses regions in eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

There are a lot of supporters who would call themselves environmentalists instead of sportsmen; that said, there are a lot of sportsmen,” said foundation Senior Naturalist John Page Williams. “There are a lot of sailors. The hunting contingent tend to be waterfowl people, because waterfowl are connected to waterways… it’s that business of being a populated area, and people who have a stake in this waterway, who feel a personal connection.”

The Chesapeake Bay is arguably the most studied large body of water on Earth thanks to its complex ecosystem, said a CBF spokesman. And the foundation is considered by ecologists and environmentalists to be the gold standard of such organizations. According to its annual report, the foundation had an operating revenue of $27.4 million in 2016, with 62 percent of its funding coming from grants and gifts, and 17 percent from membership contributions. The organization spends 79 percent of its income on program services such as environmental education, protection, restoration, and strategic communications, and 8 percent on general and administrative services.

Through its education program in 2016 alone, CBF personnel interacted with an estimated 40,000 students, teachers and adults. The foundation uses 15 different hands-​on, outdoor educational programs to help visitors and residents of the bay walk away with a deeper and more personal connection to the bay’s health.

Williams started the foundation’s education program and has been teaching and writing about the bay for more than 40 years. After living on the bay all his life, he has a pretty good idea of how people interact with waterways. “We are all connected, its health affects our property value. One of my jokes in Annapolis is, ‘What’s the connection between the health of the bay and the quality of healthcare?’ Well, I’ll let you guess how many doctors in Annapolis have boats.”

With Johns Hopkins Medical Center just around the corner in Baltimore, Williams draws the connection between a healthy bay and its appeal as a place to live and work.

The foundation began when a group of people with a passion for the wildlife residing near their homes stepped up to protect it from the pollutants that come with urbanization and development. In 1964, a group of businessmen with outdoor passions in sailing, hunting and fishing set up a lunch with then U.S. Rep. Rogers C.B Morton (R-​Md.), a native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Their mission was not to leave everything to the government. Instead, they would act as a liaison between the government and the people, encouraging the two to work in unison to protect the bay, which supports not just their hobbies, but the tourism and commercial industries that reside along its shores.

Things were up and running by 1970, with the CBF membership at 2,000 and an operating staff of three. During these early years, Maryland and Virginia established their tidal wetland protection acts, being two of the first five states to do so. These acts established state governments as the leading authority in the management and maintenance of their coastal zones, rather than relying on federal, or smaller, local governments. Within six years of its start-​up, foundation members had raised public concern over the future of the bay high enough that its board of trustees convinced Congress to approve a seven-​year Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay Study. During these seven years, foundation staff members joined forces with the EPA to study the bay. At its conclusion in 1983, the EPA was able to document declines in the overall health of the bay, such as elevated nitrogen levels from manure and sewage runoff.

The same year, governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania and the mayor of the District of Columbia worked with the Foundation and several smaller environmental organizations to create the first interstate Chesapeake Bay Agreement. Now, 40-​years later, as changes arise in agriculture, drilling and land-​use policies, the Foundation, with a staff, now 160 strong, is there to offer legislative advice, lobbying each state’s legislative process, as well as creating and implementing education programs in schools.


Rebecca Lessner

Rebecca Lessner is a graduate student in the School of Communication at Point Park University, where her studies concentrate on environmental journalism.

Explore Related Stories: