Groundbreaking Research

The Rockefeller Studies

In the Stroud Water Research Center’s early years most people still thought of rivers as conduits that transported things — from ships to sewage — to the sea. With Lake Erie slowly suffocating in its own pollution, the plight of lakes seemed, in those days, a far more urgent issue.

By the 1960s, it was clear that our rivers were in trouble. Massive weeds clogged once-navigable waterways. The water in many streams had become too polluted to swim in, let alone drink. And on June 22, 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire, the flames leaping five stories into the air.

That same year the Center received a five-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study the White Clay watershed. Faced with a new sense of urgency symbolized by the black smoke over the Cuyahoga, the Center’s scientists set out to learn all they could about how a stream works.

Inspired by the groundbreaking studies Ruth Patrick had conducted on the Conestoga River in Lancaster County two decades earlier, an interdisciplinary team set out to scrutinize the watershed. Some biologists studied the production of algae which compose one base of the food web, while others analyzed how bacteria and fungi break down leaf litter. Entomologists examined insect groups, discovering that species replacement enables a stream to maintain its energy balance throughout the year. A chemist investigated the influence of geology, land use and rain storms on the chemical composition of the water.

The research did not stop at the banks. Looking beyond to the entire watershed, the scientists began to measure the impact of activities outside the stream itself — both natural factors, such as falling leaves and changing sunlight, and human actions, ranging from farming practices and deforestation to industrial discharge and suburban lawns.

As a result of their massive sets of data, the Center’s scientists expanded the knowledge of how biological communities interact in a stream and how they react to stress from both natural disturbances and human activities. At the close of the grant period they had painted an unprecedented portrait of a watershed.