Canary in the Coal Mine: Louisiana Waterthrush Helping to Identify PA Water Quality Issues
Editor’s note: Dr. Steven Latta of the National Aviary in Pittsburgh has used a grant from 3RQ to greatly increase his ability to monitor changes in water quality in streams in Westmoreland County, PA where his long-term studies seek to better understand how birds can be used as bio-indicators of riparian health and ecosystem integrity. A version of this article originally appeared in BirdCalls, a publication of the National Aviary. It is used here with permission.
“Water is the next oil.” Most geopolitical observers in the know expect that future wars will be fought over water. We can move away from a carbon-based economy, and thus away from the oil-based turmoil that has marked the planet’s post-cold war era. However, more than 50 percent of the human body is composed of water, and that is something we can’t change.
Clean water is something that is essential to each and every one of us. In the United States, we tend to think of environmental problems – particularly with regard to water quality and abundance – as something that others experience, in far-off lands. Certainly here in southwestern Pennsylvania we have moved past the era of big steel, into a cleaner and greener economy. What possible environmental problems could we be facing?
There is, however, a rising crescendo of water quality threats in our region. With the need to reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil, Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations are expanding rapidly in our state. Such drilling practices have the potential to wreak rare havoc on the quality and health of the water we drink, and the water that supports plant, animal and aquatic life across our state.
Extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation requires ‘hydraulic fracturing’, a process that requires tremendous amounts of water — from about one million to five million gallons for each well. Water is mixed with sand and other proponents, then pumped into the shale formation under high pressure to fracture the shale around the well, releasing the natural gas and allowing it to flow freely. The millions of gallons of water required for this process are pumped from streams and other natural water sources.
Once the fracturing process is completed, the used water, often referred to as “frac fluid,” must be treated to remove chemicals and minerals. Drilling wastes are then collected and stored in pits with synthetic liners. Marcellus Shale drilling is permitted throughout the state so long as it is not within 200 feet of structures or within 100 feet of streams and wetlands.
If something goes wrong in the process, if operators fail to follow procedures, take shortcuts, or illegally dump frac fluids, the impact on aquatic life, as well as birds, wildlife and vegetation in the polluted area can be immediate and dramatic. Its impacts on livestock, and those who depend on well water, are only now being considered.
A 2008 article in Scientific American (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=drill-for-natural-gas-pollute-water cites more than 1,000 documented cases of contamination in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The cases ranged from a house explosion after hydraulic fracturing created underground passageways that allowed methane to seep into the residential water supply, to incidents of surface contamination, where accidental spills and leaky tanks, trucks and waste pits allowed benzene and other chemicals to leach into streams, springs and water wells. Benzene is a chemical believed to cause aplastic anemia and leukemia in humans.
In our area, the massive wipeout of fish along Dunkard Creek, on the Pennsylvania/West Virginia state line, created headlines. It is believed that the creek was polluted by contaminated water from a shale fracturing operation.
Most life in the stream was wiped out, done for in a hail of toxic bullets.
The causes of this fish kill, which extended for 35 miles along what was one of the most biologically diverse creeks in our state, are under investigation. The presence of mass amounts of alien golden algae – a form nonnative to our region and one that would not thrive under normal conditions – is one factor. It is thought that this algae was in some way accidentally introduced to the area via drilling equipment. Others believe the wipeout was caused by mine drainage and/or the illegal dumping of toxic drilling wastewater.
An extensive investigation is underway, but the problem of water quality in southwestern Pennsylvania is likely to worsen due to the fact that regulatory agencies in the Commonwealth – those that are assigned the responsibility of regulating and inspecting mining operations – are experiencing massive cuts. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is losing nearly 25 percent of its budget this year, making it among the most heavily cut departments in the state.
What is a state to do, when energy we dearly need destroys our environment and the regulatory organ that can protect that environment sees its budget slashed?
One answer lies in the work of the National Aviary’s Conservation and Field Research Department. With support from the Three Rivers Quest (3RQ) initiative which advanced our ability to monitor changes in water quality in streams in Westmoreland County, PA, we are helping to protect watersheds and water quality across the Appalachian region by focusing on our headwater’s own “canary in a coal mine” – the Louisiana Waterthrush.
The Lousiana Waterthrush is a small songbird, beautiful in its own way, but largely drab in appearance. The Louisiana Waterthrush is, however, a fascinating species that, because of its dependence on waterways for food and nesting areas, can tell us when a stream is dying and when it is full of life.
Much like a canary in a coal mine, the breeding and survival success of this delicate songbird can serve as a warning sign as to the deteriorating condition of waterways and the presence of toxins, chemicals and harmful aquatic invaders.
The National Aviary is tracking the breeding, nesting and population stability of this bird in our region, as well as the existence of food resources along streams and waterways. If a water source is incurring acidification from well drainage or other toxic elements are being introduced, insects – the bird’s primary source of food – will begin to diminish or disappear altogether. As the insects disappear, the birds will seek other nesting and feeding areas, a change that Dr. Latta and fellow researchers will note.
Our studies have shown that Louisiana Waterthrush that nest on streams impacted by acid mine drainage and/or acidic precipitation are greatly affected by water quality. Waterthrush on contaminated waterways were fewer in number and held larger territories, presumably because they are requiring more space to find sufficient amounts of food. Notably, the birds in contaminated areas also produced fewer, smaller chicks.
Nesting on acidified streams was also delayed until later in the spring, and fewer birds breeding on these streams returned to the same stream the following year. These results suggest that waterthrush may be suffering pronounced declines in populations as the result of poor water quality.
Most recently, we have expanded our studies to assess the impacts of Marcellus Shale development activities on the Louisiana Waterthrush, and other fish, wildlife and insects which share their critical stream habitats. We hypothesized that waterthrush nesting in areas with larger numbers of gas wells will contain higher amounts of environmental contaminants in their systems. These contaminants are measured in nesting waterthrush by sampling feathers of birds. Because this project directly measures contaminants, and samples birds across three states (PA, WV, AR) and two shale formations, results are likely to be extremely high profile and very significant in the public debate around the risks and benefits of fracking for natural gas.
In addition, we have been collaborating with DuquesneUniversity graduate student Brian Trevelline who has developed a novel method of using DNA fingerprinting to identify food items in Louisiana Waterthrush fecal samples. This technique can then be used to better understand how changes in water quality from fracking or other anthropogenic activities may affect waterthrush prey, thus impacting the bird’s productivity and survival.
Water quality and energy development are increasingly critically important issues to people across Pennsylvania, the U.S. and the world. Understanding the environmental impacts of energy development, and the impact of development and land use decisions on water quality in particular, are absolutely needed to make wise policy decisions. Our hope is that the Louisiana Waterthrush will be understood as a biological ‘canary in the coal mine.’
Our work to understand how the waterthrush can be used as an index of stream acidification i now being expanded to include impacts of fracking wastes and other contaminants. These pollutants not only impact water quality and wildlife populations, but are likely to affect human health as well.
There is no question that we as a nation need to reduce our dependence on oil and pursue other energy resources. With the help of researchers, and ethically sound collaboration between industry, science, and government regulators, the National Aviary and its collaborators believe that it is possible to access our region’s natural gas resources without harming the environment.