Aquatic Science

WPC scientists study aquatic systems – both at a molecular level and across entire ecosystems. Here are a few examples of their work.

Allegheny River Bathymetry
In an effort to better understand the habitats found at the bottom of the Allegheny River, WPC has launched a large, first-of-its-kind bathymetry mapping initiative of the waterway.

The project included building a comprehensive geographic information system of the Allegheny River, with the help of Army Corps of Engineers navigation charts and other information. Staff built a robust database of navigational information (e.g., lock and dam structures and buoys), obstructions (e.g., underwater cables and pipelines) and water quality information (e.g., Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection data).

Conservancy staff began to physically survey the river bottom in 2007 with the help of a research vessel. To date, more than 16 river miles have been mapped.

The project has led WPC staff to discover pristine habitats for freshwater species, as well as places that have been altered by human activity.

WPC plans to disseminate all mapping products to any interested party and is exploring the option of hosting this information on a WPC server, which could be navigated from the internet.

Aquatic Species Passage
The Allegheny National Forest region has an extensive history of natural resource extraction, resulting in a landscape that is crisscrossed with roads. Due to cost constraints and a lack of a thorough understanding of habitat connectivity, many forest roads crossed streams with insufficient materials and methods. This resulted in culvert outlets that were elevated above stream grade or culverts that were undersized – both of which impede the natural movement of aquatic organisms.

This project evaluated aquatic species passage at 33 road and stream crossings within the Allegheny National Forest through water quality, fish and physical surveys. The data gathered will be used to prioritize culvert replacement potential.

Freshwater Mussel Surveys in the Allegheny National Forest
Mussel surveyFreshwater mussels have long been used as indicators of environmental quality due to their sensitivity to pollution and rapid changes in habitat. WPC has partnered with staff from the USFS to conduct the first detailed freshwater mussel inventory in the Allegheny National Forest. Staff completed 16 surveys in the Clarion River in 2014, with additional SCUBA and snorkel surveys planned for other major tributaries to the Allegheny River and the Kinzua Reservoir in 2015 and 2016. Results will show which streams support populations of freshwater mussels. If water quality and habitat conditions permit, results will indicate locations for possible re-introduction of common species.

Eastern Hellbender Surveys
Hellbenders are one of the most important aquatic species found in Pennsylvania. Stream habitats for hellbenders are typically larger streams and rivers with good flow, large substrate for nest rock locations and an abundant supply of crayfish. First and foremost, hellbenders require exemplary water quality in order to survive and reproduce. Anthropogenic actions, including habitat loss due to dams, poor agricultural practices, heavy logging and acid mine drainage effects; have greatly reduced hellbender populations throughout its range. Secondly, hellbenders are an amazing species that can live for a long time—up to fifty years. They are a testament to how important water quality is to the long-term health of a stream. If a stream has adult hellbenders thriving in it, it has a history of stable water quality. In addition to being long lived, hellbenders have evolved specific predation habits which focus almost exclusively on crayfish. In winter, when crayfish become less active, hellbenders will feed on several minnow species and hellgrammites. Hellbenders and other amphibians in general are often used as bioindicators due to their inability to tolerate contaminants due to cutaneous respiration.

Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Watershed Conservation Program began monitoring hellbender populations in 2007. To date we have surveyed over 30 miles of streams in the Allegheny and Juniata River watersheds in an attempt to document hellbender populations. Our efforts are focused on documenting new hellbender populations and then monitoring long-term health of individual animals utilizing mark and recapture surveys. WPC biologists have tagged over 300 sub-adult and adult hellbenders with passive integrated transponder (PIT) since 2007. Numerous partners have joined our research efforts including Clarion University, Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, Purdue University and the Smithsonian National Zoo, all of which are working towards conserving this imperiled species in Pennsylvania. Future efforts will focus on continuing population monitoring and more effort will be placed on documenting hellbender juveniles which are critical to showing successful reproduction in western Pennsylvania streams.

Unassessed Waters
WPC is assisting the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) in conducting field investigations and studies to document the biological, chemical, physical and social attributes of Pennsylvania’s unassessed waters for the purposes of formulating and updating the PFBC’s list of wild trout waters; updating water quality protection status; establishing benchmark statistics for decision making; and informing and educating the public on issues related to the importance of proper assessment of streams and increased water quality protection for these streams.

Click here to view the Unassessed Waters Initiative.

Visual Assessments
Many of WPC’s watershed restoration projects are initially identified during visual assessments. During these assessments, WPC scientists walk the entire length of a stream and conduct a physical assessment of the stream’s channel, banks and surrounding riparian areas. WPC scientists also conduct chemical and biological monitoring of the water quality in order to rank priority restoration areas based on the physical assessment and monitoring results.

WPC aquatic scientists also play a central role in WPC’s Energy Impact Research. Click here to view WPC's Energy Impact Research.