Improving the Environment in Pennsylvania

A healthy environment is a top priority for most Americans, and pure, plentiful water and waste disposal are vital concerns in Pennsylvania.
Joseph Hoffman, Director of Natural Resources and Conservation, The Berks County Conservancy Adams County Commissioner

Joseph Hoffman, Director of Natural Resources and Conservation, The Berks County Conservancy Adams County Commissioner

"Without the thousands of hours Penn State students spent researching the physical, biological and cultural factors affecting Maiden Creek, we wouldn't have been able to start repairing the stream as quickly. The 'Rivers Conservation Plan' made us eligible for Growing Greener grants, saving us three to five years of work."

Communities spend millions of dollars protecting and improving their water supplies and establishing methods and locations to safely dispose of wastes. Residents take it for granted that when they open a tap, clean water will come out. When they put their garbage at the curbside or flush a toilet, they trust the waste will disappear and be properly treated and disposed of.

Penn State has long conducted a wide range of research on methods to improve the environment. These projects are paying big dividends by showing communities how to conserve and protect water supplies, by improving waste disposal methods, and by finding ways to convert wastes into useful byproducts.

Recent Penn State research has yielded advances that will save communities millions of dollars over the coming decades. The University won two governor's awards in 2001 for environmental excellence: one for a watershed stewardship project on the stream that provides Reading's drinking water; the other for an innovative composting initiative that takes food wastes and mixes them with organic landscape debris collected on campus and manure from the University's dairy herd.

Penn State is also innovating water conservation. The University has recycled all its wastewater for decades by spraying treated water on agricultural fields and forests. New tree research has developed an adapted forest community that can soak up the added water and nutrients, making the system ready to be copied by other institutions and municipalities. In a period of drought such as the early 2000s, this effort looms large.

The Payoff

Watershed stewardship

Watershed managers need a range of skills, from hydrology and biology to an understanding of the political aspects of community-based watershed planning and stewardship. Penn State's Center for Watershed Stewardship provides a program that augments the traditional training for graduate students in forest resources, landscape architecture, wildlife and fisheries, ecology, environmental pollution control, and agricultural economics. Students take multidisciplinary courses and then team up with Pennsylvania communities to solve real-world problems through two-semester "Keystone Projects." In one such project, students looked at the 216-square-mile Maiden Creek watershed in Berks and Lehigh counties, which has been polluted by runoff from development and agriculture. The team's plan offered more than 70 recommendations to reduce pollution and protect the watershed. The Berks County Conservancy estimates that the in-kind value of the Keystone Project on Maiden Creek, based on student and faculty time totaling more than 5,000 hours, was $87,000. In 2001, students focused on Kettle Creek, a nationally recognized blue ribbon trout stream that attracts thousands of fishermen annually. The Center for Watershed Stewardship worked with the watershed association on a plan to protect the stream from erosion and siltation, lower water temperatures for trout with streamside plantings, and capitalize on the watershed's historic logging heritage to boost tourism.

Composting on campus

During spring 1997, a campus-wide composting project began at Penn State's University Park campus. It was designed to transform food wastes, animal manure and landscape debris into compost for use in landscaping projects, athletic field maintenance and agricultural research and demonstration projects. During the 2000-2001 school year, the compost facility took in a total of 950 tons of waste, including preconsumer food waste, paper napkins, leaves, ground wood, soybean fodder, and bedded dairy manure, and produced approximately 600 tons of finished compost. This not only saves the University an average of $300 to $400 per week in waste-removal tipping fees, it also significantly reduces odor problems and creates a usable product from waste materials that would have ended up in landfills or holding facilities. This project demonstrates how the needs and resources of farmers and communities in rural-urban interface areas can evolve into an environmentally acceptable "win-win" solution. Penn State's University Park campus composting project.

Rainforest for wastewater

By replacing the typical central Pennsylvania forest community of red oak, black oak, red maple and hickory -- trees adapted to normal rainfall and acidic soils -- with thirstier species that prefer less acidic soils higher in nutrients, such as bigtooth aspen, quaking aspen, silver maple, sycamore and green ash, researchers created a natural demand for wastewater. The wastewater is disinfected and most of the nitrogen is removed at the Penn State sewage treatment plant before being pumped 2.5 miles to a 520-acre irrigation area. Overhead sprinklers dispense about 1 billion gallons of wastewater annually, which filters down to groundwater supplies. Ninety percent of the water used goes back into the groundwater system. The wastewater recycling system is critical to operation of the University, which has just a two- to four-hour storage capacity for wastewater.

The College of Agricultural Sciences water-quality and waste-disposal programs are collaborative efforts among the School of Forest Resources, the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, the Department of Dairy and Animal Sciences, Housing and Food Services, Hospitality Services, the Office of Physical Plant and Penn State Cooperative Extension. For more information, contact the School of Forest Resources at 814-865-7541.