Feature - Heartland Coalition Works to Heal Middle/Upper Susquehanna Watershed
Confluence of West and North Branches of the Susquehanna River at Sunbury

Six universities, the Geisinger Center for Health Research and Rural Advocacy and the Central Pennsylvania Forum for the Future at SEDA-COG have joined forces to form the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition to address environmental and health problems in an area of the state they feel has been under served.

The goal is simple—to focus more attention and get more resources to solve the environmental problems in the Middle and Upper Susquehanna River Watershed, the area from Lock Haven and the New York border to the confluence at Sunbury.

"Two years ago we knew colleges were doing things in the Middle Susquehanna, but they weren't talking to each other," said H.W. "Skip" Wieder of Geisinger Health Systems in Danville and chair of the Coalition. "Now we're collaborating on projects, attracting funding and taking advantage of the strengths and expertise we have in this region."

The Coalition includes Bloomsburg, Bucknell, Susquehanna and Lock Haven universities and Kings and Lycoming colleges.

"We got involved at Geisinger because there is a link between health and the environment and we have a strong environmental epidemiology program," said Wieder. "We are particularly interested in the impacts of acid mine drainage and metals on water quality, drinking water, ground water and health."

The mission of the Coalition is broad, to --

· Promote collaborative community-based research opportunities between local organizations and colleges and universities;

· Create multi-disciplinary educational opportunities for undergraduates interested in the natural and cultural resources of the Susquehanna River;

· Develop shared environmental education curriculums that would involve the partner colleges and universities;

· Design and promote a Susquehanna River website to be used by the college and university partners, area K-12 teachers, and other community partners that would act as a resource fro current and historical educational and community-based research projects;

· Design and implement K-12 teacher-training programs using local community-based organizations and colleges and universities; and

· Create a model for other states by creating a multi-institution and multi-disciplinary education collaboration that connects undergraduates attending institutions in the Upper and Middle Susquehanna region with local communities and environmental organizations.

Start-up funding for the Coalition came from the Central Pennsylvania Forum for the Future, the Department of Environmental Protection Growing Greener Program, the Degenstein Foundation in Sunbury and the educational institutions themselves.

Water quality problems in the Upper Susquehanna have been getting an increasing amount of attention, but only in the last few years through watershed assessments and projects funded under the Growing Greener Program starting in 2000.

There is also a growing understanding of the potential for restoration projects in the West and North Branches of the Susquehanna River to reduce sediment loads and pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and of the economic value of cleaning up this part of the watershed to promote tourism and recreation.

"A lot of people here want to solve sediment and nutrient problems in their own backyard, but didn't realize the connection to improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay," said Dr. Mel Zimmerman, a Professor of Biology at Lycoming College. "In reality, this region is where the problems of the Bay will be solved."

Collaboration and partnership have been keys to the success of the Coalition.

"Each school may have only one or two aquatic biologists, limited equipment and only a few students to do projects," said Zimmerman. "But by pooling our resources and faculty, we can do bigger projects and help local groups in ways that benefit the entire region."

The cooperative efforts of the Coalition have resulted in several major projects so far—

· Monitoring water quality in the lower West Branch from Lock Haven to Sunbury at 17 sites involving Lycoming and Bucknell; and

· An assessment of the effectiveness of riparian buffers to reduce nonpoint source pollution in the Chillisquaque Creek at PPL's Montour Preserve that involves planting about 60 acres by students and faculty from Lycoming, Bucknell, Susquehanna and Bloomsburg.

"Each institution brings its strengths to projects, one group does algae sampling, another plants stream buffers and shares its expertise on water quality modeling," said Zimmerman. "Students learn how sharing expertise fits into solving a common problem."

The Coalition is also looking to expand existing programs, like one at Kings College that trains K-12 teachers to integrate the Susquehanna River into their environmental education programs.

Other future projects include developing the region's first "BioBlitz" to identify local biological resources; a project pending with the National Science Foundation to teach companies sustainable business practices and an Environmental Heritage Project cataloging the environmental and cultural resources of the region

The Coalition meets monthly to update progress on projects, plan for the future and compare notes on research.

John Dawes, Administrator of the Western Pennsylvania Watershed Program, said his group is looking to members of the Coalition to provide information on how best to target mine drainage cleanup projects in the region.

"We support community-based restoration projects and having the Coalition as allies and using their resources to help develop local projects is critical," said Dawes. "It's great to be able to draw on this pool of brain power."

Dawes pointed to groundbreaking research being done by Bucknell and the Stroud Water Resource Center that shows restoration of headwaters areas, like in the Middle and Upper Susquehanna River, is an effective way to dramatically reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay.

"Many parts of these headwaters areas do not have fully functioning streams because of the damage caused by abandoned mines," said Dawes. "Research is beginning to show that restoring these headwaters ecosystems so they can retain nitrogen and metals will prevent thousands of pounds of these pollutants from getting to the Chesapeake Bay."

More attention will be focused on this part of the Susquehanna River Watershed, courtesy of the Heartland Coalition, when "Looking to the River," a documentary by WVIA television in Pittston, will premier on November 4 at the Campus Theater in Lewisburg.

"This is the first step in a series of programs on WVIA that will advocate the importance of the river to the quality of life in our region and the health of the Chesapeake Bay," said Wieder. "One objective of the project is to reintroduce the river to residents in the region to connect them to this great resource."

The documentary will be the first to examine issues in the Middle basin of the Susquehanna River—economic development, environmental protection and cultural preservation—through their connection to the history and heritage of the river.

This region of the state is also getting more attention from Harrisburg as well.

This year the West Branch was designated as Pennsylvania's River of the Year and the West Branch Task Force was formed to focus attention on the environmental problems and opportunities in that portion of the region.

In addition, the region has played a critical leadership role in the Susquehanna Greenway—an effort to connect natural, cultural, historic, and recreational resources along the 500-mile corridor of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.

"It's amazing this bunch of biologists and geologists stuck together this long," said Zimmerman. "But we all realize pooling resources is a way to do more for our students and our communities."

For more information on the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition, contact H.W. "Skip" Wieder, Geisinger Health System, 570-214-9392 or send email to: hwieder@geisinger.edu; Dr. Mel Zimmerman, Lycoming College, 570-321-4185 or send email to: zimmer@lycoming.edu or Scott Duncan, SEDA-COG, 570-524-4491 or send email to sduncan@seda-cog.org .


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