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August 28, 1997

Study of tiny Pymatuning watershed could have wide-ranging influence

Northwestern Pennsylvania's French Creek drains 1,270 square miles and the Allegheny River over 11,000 square miles. In contrast, the Pymatun-ing Reservoir watershed covers only 158 square miles, of which roughly 60 square miles are open water.

By the standards of French Creek and especially the Allegheny, the Pymatuning watershed clearly is tiny. Its largest tributary is barely six miles long and most of its feeder streams flow only one to two miles.

But thanks to work now underway at Pitt's Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, the Pymatuning watershed may one day have a reach far beyond its size, an influence that could extend across Pennsylvania and well beyond.

The Pymatuning Project, as the study is known, is an effort by a group of researchers from Pitt and three other universities to examine the ways that soils, slopes, plants, animals and land use influence water quality in a watershed and, in turn, how that water quality affects the economy of the surrounding area.

Although Stephen Tonsor, director of the Pymatuning lab, is quick to point out that studies linking water quality and economics have been conducted in other areas, no study has been done in as much detail as the Pymatuning Project. Because of the watershed's tiny size, the research team is able to study it in grids only 30 meters square.

"It means we can study water quality on a very fine scale level division of the watershed," Tonsor explained. "We can divide the watershed into a grid and each pixel in that grid we can characterize as to type of soil, slope, kind of land use or vegetation present.

"We're hoping that the results we get, the detailed analysis we do in this watershed, can be generalized to other watersheds where it isn't possible to do that level of detailed study," he added.

In addition to Tonsor, Pitt faculty involved in the Pymatuning project are: Stephen Farber, environmental economist, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs; Rafael Quimpo, hydrologist, and Radisav Vidic, civil engineer, both of civil and environmental engineering; Rosemary Capo and Brian Stewart, geochemists, geology and planetary sciences; Kathi Beratan, geographic information system specialist, geology and planetary sciences; Ethan Benatan, website manager, biological sciences, and Matt Ball, research associate, biological sciences.

Outside members of the project team include: Mitchell Small, environmental modeler, Carnegie Mellon; James Hamlett, agricultural engineer, Penn State, and Shane Parson and Puneet Srivastava, graduate students, Penn State.

Tonsor estimates that it will take 5-10 years to complete the Pymatuning Project. But the research team will not wait that long to make results available. Instead, they will release portions of the study as they are completed.

"We're trying to make this a work in progress that is accessible to anybody who might be able to make use of it while we go along," Tonsor said. "So we've set up a web page for the project." The Pymatuning Project World Wide Web site can be reached through PittInfo and the Department of Biological Sciences, ecology and evolution.

"There is information that is very user friendly about what water quality is, what a watershed is, what land use and vegetation have to do with water quality, and then some more detailed information about the Pymatuning watershed and what we can do to increase water quality," Tonsor said.

Since only the pilot portion of the Pymatuning Project has been completed, information on the website currently is a mix of material collected by researchers at the lab and supplied by the Department of Environmental Protection, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and local county conservation districts.

Money for the pilot study, which was conducted over the past year, has come from the Office of the Provost, the Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation and small seed grants from a variety of sources, according to Tonsor. The project team has since submitted funding proposals to other sources to expand the work.

Among the information available on the website is an interactive water quality model that allows users to alter land use practices in "what if" scenarios that show how those changes can go on to affect such things as fish catches, tourism and the cost of farming.

"Our goal ultimately," Tonsor said, "is for someone to be able to click on their farm in the watershed and pull up information about what soil types they have, what kind of nutrient loadings are likely from their farm. If they change to best management practices, what would it mean for that farm? If 100 percent of the farmers in the watershed change to best management practices, what effect would that have on water quality?" To forge links between the Pymatuning Project and surrounding communities, a pilot grant has been provided by the Heinz Endowment. The money is being used to keep area residents, farmers and businesses abreast of the project through meetings and interviews.

"We really don't want to impose this project on the people of the watershed," Tonsor noted. "We wish to be a resource to the people of the watershed." A poll conducted by environmental economist Farber and Tonsor has shown that residents of the watershed believe water quality to be an important issue. However, the poll also shows local residents to be "profoundly uninformed" about sources of pollution and their role in it. Automatically, they point to that old culprit, industry.

"This is not an area where industry is to blame for water quality problems," Tonsor said. "There's not enough industry in this watershed to be responsible." The real problem, the main source of pollution in the Pymatuning watershed and throughout Pennsylvania today, is non-point source pollution from the runoff of such things as fertilizer, erosion and acid mine drainage. Point source pollution, the kind that comes out of a factory pipe, largely is under control and has been under control for years thanks to strong environmental laws.

"In addition to understanding the ecology of this watershed and the economy of the watershed," Tonsor said, "we want to have a role in the education of the citizens of the watershed so that they can make wise decisions about how to use the watershed. We are not interested in advocating a particular decision on their part. We are interested in giving them the information that allows them to make appropriate decisions from an ecological and an economic standpoint."

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 1

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