Wading deep into the Conestoga River, Todd Umstead bent down and placed an electronic device in the water, recording his chemistry before later jotting down the results in a handwritten spreadsheet.
A few yards away, beakers, flasks and other scientific equipment were strewn on a cobble-covered bank where the river passes near Windolph Landing Park in Lancaster Township.
All of these, he said, are necessary — used to record conditions in the waterway as part of an effort to monitor its overall health.
But Umstead is not a scientist. He’s a volunteer, one of about five dozen conservation-minded residents who help track the quality of the county’s rivers and streams for the Lancaster County Conservation District.
“I love to fish. Fishing is my passion. And fish need clean water to live,” Umstead said, explaining why he got involved with the program, which tracks the alteration of rivers and their tributaries.
It’s a job that’s becoming increasingly important as county officials and conservation organizations work to meet federal mandates, which require the reduction of harmful vapor pollutants – harmful sediments and nutrients, by especially nitrogen and phosphorus – to clean up local waterways.
Earlier this year, state figures showed that 89.4% of Lancaster County’s 1,432 assessed stream miles are considered impaired, according to the Integrated Water Quality Reporting Project. Pennsylvania Water 2022 from the Department of Environmental Protection. There are 1,438 miles of waterways in total in the county.
That high percentage stood out earlier this month for Matthew Kofroth, a conservation district watershed specialist who oversees the volunteer monitoring program, called the Water Quality Volunteer Coalition.
The goal of the program, Kofroth said, is to keep a record of these deficiencies, along with hoped-for improvements as environmental restoration work takes place in the county’s watersheds.
“The idea of this group, as it always has been, is to collect baseline water quality data, a kind of citizen science data,” Kofroth said.
50 to 60 volunteers
On the cobble-covered shore of Conestoga, Umstead demonstrated this process, collecting water samples and using all this scientific equipment to record water quality indicators – acidity, temperature, flow, clarity, levels of water. oxygen and other factors, including the concentration of certain pollutants such as nitrates and phosphates.
Pollutants are affecting both local waterways and those downstream, including the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.
And this sampling work is in addition to the biannual collection by volunteers of aquatic insects sensitive to pollution, such as mayflies and caddisflies, whose presence is a positive indicator of the good health of waterways.
Umstead is just one of 50 to 60 volunteers collecting data at about three dozen monitoring sites, Kofroth said.
Ideally, these samplers would return to the same exact locations in chosen waterways each month, recording a continuum of data that would show changes over time, Kofroth said. Dramatic improvements or setbacks are unlikely to be recorded from month to month, he said.
“You’re not going to see that. It took hundreds of years to break down, and it will take a long time to get better. We are kind of ‘the tortoise and the hare’,” Kofroth said. “It’s” slow and steady wins the race. “”
Currently, volunteers are allowed to choose their own sites, as long as the streams they sample are in Lancaster County, Kofroth said, explaining that district officials would like to track watersheds throughout the county. .
But increasingly, he said, DEP officials have urged program officials to direct samplers to waterways near areas where restoration work — such as shoreline repair, removal legacy sediments and the planting of riverside trees and shrubs – were implemented in an effort to meet pollution reduction mandates.
Kofroth guessed that the request stems from the hope that sampling results might prove that restoration projects have been successful in reducing degradation by capturing pollutants, which are often carried by stormwater to rivers in the urban and agricultural land.
By itself, the data collected by volunteers isn’t enough to add or remove a river or stream from the state’s impaired streams list, but if the results show continued changes, once submitted, they could attract scrutiny. attention from state and federal regulators, Kofroth mentioned.
“No, we’re not removing a stream, but we are basically removing it because we provide water quality data that exists, and then we pass it on to those who are legally authorized to remove it from this list,” he said. noted. “From a citizen science perspective, that’s what we do.”
Something like a social club
Still, the work isn’t always so serious, Kofroth said, describing the program also as something like a social club.
This was clear earlier this month at a meeting of the Water Quality Volunteer Coalition at the Farm and Home Center in Lancaster, where a small group of samplers talked about their work and shared funny stories about testing trips. which have gone wrong.
There they also heard about Kofroth, who showed off newly purchased sample kits filled with scientific equipment that will supplement and replace older kits, many of which have not been updated for at least 15 years. , did he declare.
“They’ve taken very good care of it, but it’s wearing away,” Kofroth said, applauding the volunteers. “It was time to modernize.”
These new kits cost around $20,000, Kofroth said, explaining that the cost was covered by state funding.
In total, the group now has about 10 kits, which are shared among the volunteers, he said.
Speaking on behalf of the volunteers, Kofroth said many of them are like-minded, environmentally conscious county residents who are drawn to the opportunity to get out and possibly help improve the course. of water.
Among them is Mary Kay Phillips of the Octoraro Watershed Association, who is tasked with testing numerous sites, most surrounding the Octoraro Reservoir, she said.
“A lot of them are just tiny little feeder streams,” she said, adding there was plenty of room for growth. “We are trying to increase the number of sites we work on.”
Increased interest in the outdoors after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the number of participating volunteers, Kofroth said, noting recent partnerships with recreation and conservation groups like the Conestoga River Club, of which Umstead is a member.
Still, he said, newcomers are welcome.
Those interested in the program, including sampling results, can visit lancasterwatersheds.org/volunteer-water-quality-monitoring/, officials said.