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UpStream Newsletter, Summer 1999

1000 750 Stroud Water Research Center

In this issue: Message from the Director | Tea Time | Watershed Programs | Research Project Updates

Message from the Director

Stroud™ Water Research Center has become an independent organization with its own financial structure, administration, Board of Directors and even a new logo. Although the Stroud Center has taken on a new identity, it remains focused on: (i) pursuing new knowledge about streams, rivers, and their watersheds through basic research; (ii) providing solutions for water resource problems worldwide; and (iii) promoting public understanding of the ecosystem through education programs, conservation leadership, and professional service. To me, the Stroud Water Research Center has been and will continue to be a very special place.

What do I mean when I say that the Stroud Center is special? For me, defining the essence of this place is like trying to describe what makes a fine work of art. A rare combination of things — some tangible and some intangible — come together to make a special piece. At the Stroud Center, too, simultaneous things occur to make this a special place. But what are these things?

Visitors to the Stroud Center first see the tangible things. Most of these are straightforward, and many of them could, and probably do, occur individually elsewhere. But at Stroud, they occur together and often in unusual combinations. For example, our wheel-chair-accessible front walkway is fashioned as a meandering stream and lined with sculptures of large bronze fish. Our state-of-the-art research building incorporates the wall of an 18th-century barn. In laboratories, ultra-modern instrumentation stands beside original paintings ranging from neo-romantic to abstract art. Part of the headwaters of the White Clay Creek, the protected experimental watershed and stream where we perform our long-term research, flows freely through channels inside the research building.

We appreciate all these things, but it is the intangible that is the heart and soul of the institution. Such things as: our determination to pursue the very best science, to communicate our findings to both professional colleagues and the general public, and to create the finest education programs available on the ecology of streams, rivers and their watersheds; the expertise and dedication of our scientific and educational staff and the excitement and enthusiasm they bring to each new project; the team approach, which is based on the conviction that collaboration produces the best science over the long-term.

We believe that there is an art to scientific investigation. Being surrounded by art challenges the scientists with other interpretations of the world around us.

Just as a great painting has an intagible stoke of genius, a breakthrough scientific experiment leads us to never see the world the same again.

The Stroud Center has been and will continue to be a special place where science is art and art facilitates the pursuit of great science.

Bern Sweeney, Director

Tea Time

As rain water passes through a forest’s canopy and floor, it picks up an enormous variety of molecules which have been produced by plants, animals and microorganisms. These molecules blend together into a mix of natural organic matter that enters the forest’s streams in much the same way that tea flows out of its tea bag into a cup of boiling water.

Just as different spices create different flavors of tea, so individual watersheds produce their own special blends of organic matter. In fact, so specific is each “watershed tea,” that migrating fish use the memory of their watershed’s particular blend as a beacon to find their way home at spawning time.

The tea also provides a supply of food for bacteria living in the stream. Recent studies at the Stroud Center indicate that each watershed supports a unique community of bacterial species which develop as a result of their ability to use the local food resource. These findings suggest that by studying the activity of microscopic organisms in our watersheds, we may gain important insights into issues ranging from the quality of our drinking water to the processes of global warming.

With more and more water utilities turning to biological filtration in the purification process, the role played by bacteria in the watershed has become increasingly critical to both monitoring and protecting drinking water. The more we know about how bacteria consume organic matter in a watershed, the better we can evaluate biological filtering systems. If those systems are able to impede the growth of bacteria, then water utilities should be able to reduce their dependence on chemical disinfectants.

On a broader level, despite the best efforts of watershed bacteria, a great deal of the organic matter that flows through our streams and rivers ends up in the ocean, where it has a significant aggregate impact on global carbon cycles. Consequently, as we improve our knowledge of how microbes process the matter in their particular watersheds, we should simultaneously enhance our understanding of the factors influencing global warming.

Because of the implications of our findings, the American Water Works Association Research Foundation awarded Lou Kaplan of the Stroud Center and his colleagues, David Stahl of Northwestern University and Patrick Hatcher of Ohio State, a grant to test several hypotheses aimed at understanding the precise components of watershed teas, the species composition of bacterial communities and the critical information on water quality they may provide.

By bridging three distinct disciplines — biogeochemistry, microbial ecology, and analytical organic chemistry — within a single experimental framework, this project can address fundamental questions about what happens to organic matter in stream ecosystems and what role specific bacteria play in purifying water. The answers to these questions have important implications for expanding our knowledge of the biological treatment of drinking water. They should also provide fresh insights into the fate of organic matter as it is carried by streams from its terrestrial origin to its oceanic destination. That knowledge, in turn, may tell us much about the future of our planet.

Six “Blends” of Watershed Tea

  • White Clay Creek in the Pennsylvania Piedmont
  • Hillsboro River in Florida’s Coastal Plain
  • Rio Tempisquito in the Cordillera de Guanacaste of Costa Rica
  • Boulder Creek in the Southern Rocky Mountains
  • White River in the Interior Low Plateaus
  • Hyalite Reservoir in the Northern Rocky Mountains

These provide a broad range of watersheds in which to perform this interdisciplinary study.

Watershed Programs — Preserving the Future of Water through Education

Everybody, everywhere, lives in a watershed. Watersheds, those regions of the landscape that direct the flow of rainwater and snow melt to a particular body of water, unite all of us. The theme of watersheds provides a relevant context with which to educate children, teachers and adults about the water that surrounds them, the decisions they can make to preserve it’s future and the water research of the Stroud Center.

Stewardship of freshwater ecosystems connects us all across the landscape. To the Stroud Center Education Department this means helping all citizens understand their impact on and responsibility toward freshwater natural resources: from homeowners and their families, municipal officials, industry and corporate leaders, to conservation professionals and regulatory officials as well as teachers. To enlighten and educate these many diverse audiences is the challenge and purpose of the Stroud Center Education Department. It is made easier now that three staff are devoted to the job — Jim McGonigle, Kristen Travers and Vivian Williams.

In December, James McGonigle, Jr. was appointed Director of Education. While at the Academy of Natural Sciences, he was instrumental in establishing an education connection between the museum and environmental research laboratories which included the Stroud Water Research Center. As director of Watershed Programs, Jim helped coordinate new education programs that reflected the aquatic science research. One of these programs, Environmental Focus, received a $240,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to work with middle school teachers over a three-year period in developing locally relevant connections to their life science curriculum. A four-week summer institute met daily at the Stroud Center in which teachers participated in a rigorous series of lectures, participated in field and laboratory activities, tested curricula and developed resource kits to be used in the implementation stage during the school year. “When I was a classroom teacher, I craved these types of experiences,” said McGonigle. “We have the opportunity to be a major influence on the professional development of science teachers across the country. We can connect them to the latest thinking in stream and watershed ecology. We, in turn, get feed-back from them in order to make the programs relevant and exciting for kids.”

Kristen Travers has been at the Stroud Center since 1993 and has helped establish many of the existing programs. One of these exciting programs is the Leaf Pack Experiment. Designed around a research technique of placing mesh bags full of leaves in the stream, leaf packs provide food and shelter for many different aquatic organisms. Through a business collaboration with the LaMotte Company of Chestertown, Maryland, the Leaf Pack Experiment Kit has been purchased by hundreds of schools and is awakening young minds to the biodiversity of streams and the need for their protection.

Newly returned to the Stroud Center is Vivian Williams. Vivian, who previously had worked at the Stroud Center since 1994, spent last year working with the Academy of Natural Sciences on urban watershed programs. These included developing “watershed tours” for the Philadelphia Water Department to distribute to rate payers as well as developing teacher education programs focused on the Wissahickon Creek watershed.

These three professionals design, coordinate and implement the rich array of programs, workshops, and exhibits the Stroud Center uses to reach diverse audiences about their water. Local teachers have used the Stroud Center as a place to improve their understanding of environmental science as well as improve the ways they involve students in learning science. Stroud Center educators have taken live aquatic insects and fish into local classrooms to provide more exciting and hands-on experiences that enliven the school day. Conservation volunteers and professionals throughout the state have been trained to sample and identify stream organisms to determine water quality. Hundreds of families have had fun learning about their local streams and watersheds by participating in our traveling exhibits. These are just a few of the many projects that the Stroud Center’s education staff have been involved in over the past few years.

The education programs at the Stroud Center have never been stronger. Now four years into the Schuylkill River Initiative, a network of thousands of people has experienced programs from the Stroud Water Research Center. The challenge now is the same as is has been since the beginning of our education initiatives in 1992 — creating ways to bring the latest research ideas, practices and findings to many people with diverse needs in order to preserve and protect the future of water.

Research Project Updates

The Effect of Forest Buffers on Stream Life

The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Stroud Center a three-year, $940,000 grant for an innovative interdisciplinary project to study the differences between forested and meadow reaches of small streams. The project is notable both for its science and because it entails two distinct levels of collaboration. The basic research, which seeks to assess the impact on stream life of changes in sunlight, temperature and water flow, is a joint effort that involves all six senior staff scientists at the Stroud Center, as well as two colleagues from the Academy of Natural Sciences. The scientific findings are in turn being integrated with sociological data on landowner views, preferences and prejudices concerning streamside forests. This information, which is being compiled by social scientists at Penn State University and the University of Delaware, seeks to understand the social, political and historical pressures on streamside planting and deforestation. The combination of these two distinct but interdependent sets of data should provide a unique perspective on the scientific, social and ecological dimensions of a critical public policy issue.

Some of the questions this collaborative study hopes to answer are:

  • Do pesticides break down faster in forested reaches, where stream-based microbes operate more efficiently, or in meadow reaches, where direct sunlight helps break down the active ingredients?
  • Which environment facilitates greater fish diversity and production?
  • Where are there likely to be more varieties and higher densities of insects, worms and crayfish to support larger aquatic life, such as fish?
  • Where is dissolved organic matter processed faster and more efficiently?
  • What impact do the different conditions have on the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus being exported downstream to our estuaries?
  • What role do political and social factors play in streamside planting and reforestation?
  • What are the public policy implications of this research?
  • How do the different levels of shade and direct sunlight affect the kinds and amount of aquatic plant life in the stream?

Sponsors: National Science Foundation; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Tropical Stream Pollution

The Stroud Center is developing the first comprehensive global perspective on stream ecology and pollution through a combination of field and literature studies involving disturbed tropical watersheds. The overall goal is to determine the relative sensitivity of tropical fish, insects and algae to various types and degrees of pollution. Field study sites include streams flowing near or through small towns and medium-to-large cities in Venezuela and Costa Rica. Literature studies will consist of a document search and compilation on a global scale, although certain tropical areas, particularly in Latin America, will receive extra effort in concert with our field studies.

Sponsor: Procter and Gamble Co.

Fingerprinting Rivers

We analyzed water samples from 20 rivers and reservoirs from around the world, which were sent to us by water utilities. While some of these sources are pristine, others are impacted by waste-water treatment plants, agriculture, feedlots and urban runoff. By studying the “fingerprints” left by organic molecules, including perfumes and soaps from treatment plants and petroleum and combustion by-products from urban runoff, we hope to develop a clearer understanding of how organic matter in general — and pathogens in particular — enters our drinking-water supplies.

Sponsor: American Water Works Association Research Foundation

Stream Quality and Changing Land Use

The Stroud Center has received a five-year, renewable grant to maintain its installations across the White Clay watershed. These installations include both shallow and deep streamside wells, instruments for sampling soil water, rain gauges and survey monuments, all of which are used to collect data and test hypotheses on changes to the stream due to gradual long-term changes in the watershed. Our 30-year data base on the White Clay ecosystem is a critical asset for evaluating the patterns of environmental change caused by such things as reforestation, global warming, development and agricultural practices.

Sponsor: National Science Foundation

Evaluating Drinking Water

Organic carbon in natural waters is a mixture of dissolved molecules, particles and colloids. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency recently began to require water utilities to measure and report the concentrations of total organic carbon in their source waters. We have received a grant to evaluate the accuracy of the measurements required to ensure clean drinking water. As part of this study, we are seeking to develop relevant and generally applicable standards of measurement, which will enable the utilities to evaluate their own analytical capabilities.

American Water Works Association Research Foundation

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