Cleaner Water for Pennsylvania

Water is something most of us take for granted. Turn on your tap and out it comes. About 44 percent of Pennsylvania's drinking water comes from groundwater systems, including municipal water supplies and 900,000 individual wells.
Dave Williams District 4 Forester, Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry; Allegheny, Fayette, Somerset, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland Counties

Dave Williams District 4 Forester, Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry; Allegheny, Fayette, Somerset, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland Counties

"Linn Run in Westmoreland County was so acidic that trout could no longer live in it. Penn State forestry specialists provided essential scientific background work for us and helped us to develop a stream mitigation process to reduce the acidity. Now, the trout are able to survive."

The other 56 percent comes from surface water supplies: 43,000 miles of streams, 2,300 reservoirs and 76 natural lakes. There are six major watersheds in the state. Of those, the Susquehanna watershed alone provides about half of the water entering the Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania's water resources also support industry and agriculture, as well as water recreational activities that provide nearly $2.5 billion in economic benefits each year.

Regulations control most pollutants coming directly from a specific industrial origin, called "point source pollution." But another type of contamination, known as "nonpoint source pollution," is much more difficult to manage. It occurs when pollutants from a variety of different sources -- urban areas, agricultural lands, abandoned mines, landfills -- runoff or seep into water supplies.

Penn State specialists have been studying nonpoint source pollution and developing research and extension education programs designed to minimize it. In addition, undergraduate classes and graduate student research help to mold future scientists and educators to find innovative ways to manage water quality problems.

The Payoff

Acid Mine Drainage

Drainage from Pennsylvania's 250,000 acres of abandoned surface coal mines is the primary source of water degradation in Pennsylvania. In 1989, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Resources assessed 23,833 miles of streams for water quality. Nearly 49 percent were degraded from mine drainage. Penn State researchers have studied the use of limestone-based treatments, wetlands and pumped groundwater to improve these streams. The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation and conservation organizations used these research results to install a limestone-based diversion well on Lick Creek in Tioga County to abate damage by acid mine drainage at a relatively low cost. Tests show the quality of the water improved enough to allow fish and aquatic insects to thrive. These devices are now installed at 13 locations in Pennsylvania.

Curbing farmland runoff

According to the state water quality survey, more than 1,200 miles of our streams have been degraded from agricultural runoff -- excess nutrients that seep or are washed off by rain into water supplies. Penn State researchers found that farmers can use wetlands and sedimentation basins to filter runoff. In addition, a program called Farm*A*Syst, adapted for Pennsylvania by Penn State and state and federal agencies, helps farmers recognize problem areas and develop solutions. About 200 farms have been directly evaluated and many opportunities to reduce pollution have been identified. More than 2,000 self-audits have been requested by farmers as well. A new statewide program may allow dairy farmers who demonstrate superior environmental protection to develop a special niche of consumers who value their initiative.

Many streams to cross

Researchers and extension specialists have developed a program to educate farmers about stream bank fencing, which prevents livestock from breaking down stream banks and encourages thick strips of vegetation to grow along streams to prevent soil erosion and filter runoff from nearby fields. Along Spring Creek in Centre County, approximately 3.6 miles of fencing have been installed, effectively stopping erosion and significantly reducing soil sediment in the water. In a cooperative USDA project in Lancaster County, more than 40 miles of stream flowing through some of Pennsylvania's most productive farmland also have been fenced. In addition, researchers have studied and evaluated a variety of methods for building stream crossings for heavy equipment that lessen erosion and the release of soil sediment into streams during logging. Tests revealed that properly constructed crossings can reduce sediment loads to nearly zero.

Acid rain

When fossil fuels are burned, trace elements are released into the atmosphere as pollution. Rain can adsorb these elements and pass them on into soils and water supplies. Acid rain makes soils more acidic and contributes to the accumulation of toxic metals, such as mercury and aluminum, in fish. Penn State researchers have supervised the state's only comprehensive, long-term monitoring system for precipitation. The program records and tracks the distribution of nitrates, sulfates, ammonia and other acidifying compounds across the state. The project has determined that concentrations of sulfates have decreased across the state since the enactment of the Clean Air Act of 1990. However, the level of nitrates and ammonia nitrogen in rainwater is increasing and more work must be done.

Cleaner food processing. Pennsylvania's food processing industry is the largest industrial consumer of water. To help protect water quality, all Pennsylvania food processing companies have adopted a Penn State manual on how to manage and dispose of their food by-products. The manual and its educational training program now serve as a model for similar programs in New Jersey, North Carolina, Minnesota, Illinois and other states.

Reduce the use

For the past 25 years, Penn State's water conservation programs have contributed substantially to a reduction in state and national water usage. Although the U.S. economy and population have grown since 1980, water usage has actually dropped during that same period. In addition, Penn State's extension personnel lead educational clinics on water supply problems, well-water monitoring, water treatment methods and proper water testing. To date, more than 9,000 Pennsylvania residents have participated. In addition, more than 60,000 extension publications on groundwater issues for urban and rural homeowners have been distributed throughout the state.

The College of Agricultural Sciences water quality programs are a collaborative effort among the School of Forest Resources; the Departments of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Agronomy and Dairy and Animal Science; and Penn State Cooperative Extension. For more information, contact William Sharpe at (814) 863-8564 or visit