Liquid Science

Avondale’s Stroud Water Research Center has its eye on a precious resource.

Bernard Sweeney, director of the Stroud Water Research Center, in the facility’s backyard.Stroud Water Research Center is filled with overt reminders of how seriously it takes its cutting-edge research on the water quality of streams and rivers. In the conference room and library, there’s the portrait of founder Ruth Patrick commissioned by the Academy of Natural Sciences, where she founded the limnology department. Patrick is in waders—her version of an academic robe—sitting on a rock in White Clay Creek behind the Avondale facility.

In the powder room, a sign instructs users to conserve water, cautioning, “Do not wash cars” and “Bathe in the least amount of time.” Above the commode, there’s a watercolor of a young boy urinating in a river. That can’t be good for water quality—but such humor is warranted at Stroud Water Research Center, a place that’s refined its role in “pioneering the science of water.”

Water is a precious commodity—so much so that industry experts predict we’ll eventually have world wars over it. If just .5 percent of the planet’s available water is good, clean and fresh, and we continue to contaminate that portion, what will be left?

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“Water is the basis for everything,” says Bernard Sweeney, Stroud’s veteran director. “But few people realize that even the manufacturing of most widgets takes a lot of water. Or take the first questions with any housing development proposal: Where will you get water, and what will you do with the water that’s used? Without answers, that project doesn’t get off first base. Water has been taken for granted. Well, not anymore.”

Stroud scientists—Sweeney included—continue to generate credible, unbiased, third-party data, their results often empower others. Stroud has been nonprofit since 1999, when it ceased being a field station for the Academy of Natural Sciences. And its scientists continue to learn how to best relay results to the public. “It’s communication, and scientists are not good communicators,” Sweeney admits. “We have to continue to learn to keep it simple and not overwhelm with facts and figures. We need to make the heart of the matter palatable.”

It’s one reason why, in 1991, the center initiated an education program, to better serve teachers, students, township supervisors and congresspeople alike. “Anyone who uses water is important to us—and that’s everybody,” Sweeney says.

Stroud opened its doors in 1967, after Patrick—a National Medal of Science winner who celebrated her 103rd birthday last November—convinced the late W.B. Dixon Stroud and his wife, Joan, to set up a small laboratory dedicated to freshwater research. Built along White Clay Creek on the Strouds’ farm, the facility was ahead of its time. This was, of course, before the 1970 creation of the Environmental Protection Association and the Clean Water Act two years later.

Today, Stroud—like water—seems to be everywhere. Its 50 employees (40 on the scientific staff) are spread out, but not too thinly. Stroud is now a local, regional and global operation. Its activity stretches from small freshwater ponds in the Antarctic to the world’s two largest rivers, the Amazon and the Congo.

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For each endeavor, scientists work in interdisciplinary research teams, utilizing expertise in microbial ecology, chemistry, ecosystem modeling, invertebrate biology and more. Their studies encompass the physical, chemical and biological processes of streams and rivers, the life histories of individual organisms, and the ecology of watersheds. Through it all, Stroud’s mission has never diverted.

“We’ve remained focused,” Sweeney says. “We didn’t start a marina or start studying lakes. It’s just streams and rivers—and that’s allowed us to remain at the cutting edge of our discipline.”

Lately, the push is downstream, as Stroud has been drawn into the current of further-off issues like ocean dead zones. “Some ask why we’re in the Amazon and the Congo,” says Sweeney. “We need to study the role of all fresh water, and to know how our land use and topography affects the export of fresh water. These are questions we can’t always answer in our backyard. The Mississippi has already been greatly affected by humans; it’s a managed river. We need to go to the jungle, where the water hasn’t been impacted.”

The global scene is a good distance from White Clay Creek, which was Stroud’s only test waters during its first five years. Now, it’s testing paradigms in fresh water around the world. “It’s all relative,” says Sweeney. “If there are consistencies from White Clay Creek to Georgia to Costa Rica and the headwaters of the Amazon, that’s powerful information—a powerful reason for others to say, ‘We believe you.’”

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Among Stroud’s most burning issues is a five-year collaboration with the University of Delaware in a National Science Foundation-funded study of the Christina River Basin’s Critical Zone Observatory. The CZO project looks at how different land uses affect the storage of carbon by a stream and its watershed. That, in turn, affects the amount moving downstream to estuaries and oceans.

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Where the Brandywine Creek, White Clay Creek and Red Clay Creek join to form the Christina River, the basin is one of six national CZO projects. Each $5 million study is renewable for two or more five-year spans. Sweeney says the area won its bid over 99 other proposals because of its diverse use and topography. The basin features everything from the forested areas of French Creek to highly urbanized areas.

Stroud is also engaged in the region’s multistate Marcellus Shale drilling debate. Its scientists are generating data to help provide context regarding the potential environmental effects of mass drilling. They are also poised to explore the relative toxicity levels of certain chemicals in effluents associated with the drilling, which in itself uses lots of water. Surrounding ecosystems must then deal with that discharge. “There are advantages to bringing that gas up,” Sweeney says. “But there are questions about whether we can do it safely.”

Stroud is also pioneering the use of DNA technology in the study of stream macroinvertebrates to identify them at the species level. In fact, the center’s two newest staffers are molecular ecologists.

Advancements like DNA bar coding provide more powerful tools for water-quality assessment and better monitoring of water management. The lead scientist on the first monitoring project utilizing bar coding, Sweeney recently spoke to the EPA in Washington, D.C. His point: The National Water Quality Assessment Program should be using the same science. “It should be applied worldwide,” he says. “In 10 years, we’ll all be doing it this way.”

Also near and dear to Sweeney is the subject of reforestation. Streamside or not, woodlands aren’t regenerating because of whitetail deer herds. The higher percentage of forested area, the better the water quality—a fact Stroud scientists have proven over and over. Trees help by filtering rainwater and acting as buffer to keep pollutants out of streams. With more forest, there’s less population, less macadam and fewer contaminants in runoff.

Pennsylvania has a goal of planting an additional 19,000 acres of riparian buffers by the end of 2011. It will require a tree installation rate eight times greater than that of the past decade.

Richard L. Shockey is a part-time environmental review specialist with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, following a 32-year career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. He has organized field trips to Stroud for 20 years to study forested riparian buffers.

“It’s a very simple concept,” says Shockey. “We need our small streams protected with forested riparian buffers and with the appropriate upland conservation practices. [Sweeney] and other researchers are telling us what we need to do: Plant more trees—particularly more native trees in riparian corridors.”

Sweeney and Shockey paint the ancient picture of Penn’s Woods in a more natural way—the way it was. But once you plant seedlings, you still have deer, and no one wants deer fencing. It’s expensive, looks institutional and interferes with foxhunting. Stroud, which also encompasses the 332-acre Stroud Preserve that Morris Stroud left, is experimenting with installing shorter fencing in smaller areas. “The solution won’t be one silver bullet, but a bunch of them,” says Sweeney.

Southern Chester County remains a model laboratory for kindred conservation collaboration. Stroud works closely with the Brandywine Conservancy and the Natural Lands Trust. “We’re scientists, and they’re experts in land conservation,” Sweeney notes.

Land conservation was once only an idealistic concept. But, over time, Stroud began to prove that the realistic value of open space is in its fresh water supply. The revelation has turned to the fox chase for easements into more of an everyman position than an elitist one. Because of it, the conservancy has more leverage. “In turn, they’ve given us beautiful preserved testing sites,” Sweeney says.

The conservancy, too, has mounted a reforestation campaign that draws heavily on Stroud to protect existing riparian buffers and to restore lost ones. “We’re incredibly fortunate to have this world-class group of scientists as part of our watershed neighborhood and to be able to draw upon their applied research to support our work,” says Wesley R. Horner, senior advisor for water resources at the Brandywine Conservancy’s Environmental Management Center.

Everyday consumers should also take note: Around the globe and hitting home soon, downstream water users will need to pay upstream landowners to keep their acreage open and preserved. “If you cut down trees and build houses, you destroy the water for downstream users,” Sweeney says. “There’s value in keeping land in forest—and so, those owners should be paid to do that.”

Half of Philadelphia’s water comes from the Schuylkill River Watershed, areas the city often promotes with free tree plantings. Many trees, in fact, are paid for by the water companies.

“It’s not all altruism,” says Sweeney. “Those companies have good reason to encourage tree plantings. But how expensive will it become to produce clean, fresh water?”

The solution to big problems often begins with small changes in, say, a township ordinance that forces developers to justify cutting down trees, or influencing water-conservation behavior at home so children can understand.

“When they go home and tell everyone to take shorter showers, it’s hard for parents to ignore that logic,” Sweeney says. “Sometimes, you don’t need to know all the science.”

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