Susquehanna University took a big step forward in its research into the health of the Susquehanna River with the opening of its Freshwater Research Laboratory last summer.
Susquehanna received a $2.25 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation in 2014 to support the Freshwater Research Initiative (FRI). Most of the funding supported the creation of Susquehanna's Freshwater Research Laboratory, a centralized location for research into the health of the river, its wildlife and surrounding tributaries.
"A goal of the FRI is to create a model for research and data collection that will inform the public and impact policy making," said University President L. Jay Lemons. "Foundational to this is the belief that the best way to ensure the health of the river is a well-coordinated project that leverages the expertise of stakeholders committed to protecting the Susquehanna River."
The laboratory, located in a renovated dairy barn just beyond Susquehanna's athletic fields on Sassafras Street, Selinsgrove, serves as a home base for the research initiative.
"The opening of the laboratory was a critical catalyst for the Freshwater Research Initiative," said FRI director Jonathan Niles. "This unique facility and its equipment allow faculty, students and our collaborators to conduct meaningful, data-driven, peer-reviewed and publically disseminated aquatic research that seeks to address the ecological problems that face the Susquehanna River."
The grant has funded new state-of-the-art equipment, including:
- an electrofishing boat, which delivers electric currents into the water to stun fish, making them easier to catch for sampling
- two electrofishing backpack units, which operate the same way and are used in waters too shallow for the boat
- two water-testing machines that are housed within the center
- several handheld water-testing units for field use
Susquehanna faculty are leading this project to ensure broad and compelling long-term impacts while working collaboratively with a network of nonprofit groups, government agencies and other academic institutions within the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay watersheds.
Research partners include Bloomsburg University, Bucknell University, Lycoming College, Pennsylvania State University, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Protection and Fish and Boat Commission, county conservation districts and others.
Last spring, Susquehanna awarded $70,000 to five regional, state and national organizations to support collaborative freshwater research. Reports from these recipients are due in March. The funds were made possible through the Mellon grant.
Life Cycle of Smallmouth Bass
Susquehanna's current research focuses on the health and life cycle of smallmouth bass. Initial findings show that many of the fish are not reaching adulthood. The question is, why?
"Aquatic species are kind of the canary in the mine that tell us when there is some kind of stressor within the ecosystem," Niles said. "Could it be temperature increases, increases in sedimentation, a virus, a parasite? We don't know yet."
Niles and faculty members in the biology, chemistry and earth and environmental sciences departments at Susquehanna—Jack Holt, Carlos Iudica, Ahmed Lachhab and Lou Ann Tom—are also working with stakeholder groups and colleagues from partnering institutions in the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies (SRHCES). The SRHCES is composed of Susquehanna, Bucknell, Bloomsburg and Lock Haven universities, and King's and Lycoming colleges. Their work includes a variety of research projects focused on water quality and aquatic life, which ultimately affect the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed.
More Than 500 Streams Assessed
Since 2010, Niles and a team of his students have worked with various government agencies and private landowners to survey more than 500 of the 4,000 stream segments assessed under the state's Unassessed Waters Initiative.
Their goal is to find wild brook trout in the streams and help the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection determine usage and protections for the waterways.
More than half of 2014's 172 surveyed streams had wild trout, which can only live in pristine, cool water free of excess sedimentation and sunlight. The presence of wild trout in these previously unassessed streams means their protection becomes a priority, which helps influence overall water and land usage in the area surrounding the stream.
Health of Wild Trout Streams
University faculty and students also are engaged in a project with the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds and the Loyalsock Creek Watershed Association to research the long-term impacts of severe flooding (2011) on organisms within the waterways and examining the effects of fracking-related landscape change on wild trout streams.
Other projects currently underway by Susquehanna faculty and students include:
- Susquehanna River: Investigation of rusty crayfish density and diet; long-term data collection of algae and other aquatic life; detailed studies of the red-backed salamander; investigation of riparian ground spider communities as a potential source for mercury mobilization between food-chains
- Loyalsock Creek, Lycoming County: Long-term data collection of trout populations, other aquatic life and water quality
- Faylor Lake, Snyder County: Use of ground-penetrating radar to assess sediment load