Friday, May 21, 2010

Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Reflects on Achievements

As a prelude to Pittsburgh’s hosting the upcoming World Environment Day and the Water Matters! Global Water Conference, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy this morning highlighted its role in restoring and protecting the region’s waterways in light of past and present degradation from mining, deforestation, agricultural and industrial pollution.

Believing that doing so will protect waterways, the Conservancy has helped protect 78,000 acres of land. But they also get wet doing scientific research like the Allegheny River Mapping Project.

Fellow living things underwater come in for study too. The eastern hellbender salamander can live to be 50 years old and over 2 feet long—the largest in North America. Aquatic Science Director Eric Chapman leads groups into streams like Indiana County’s Little Mahoning Creek, lifting up rocks as big as the hood of a car in search of the rare amphibians that have much to teach. Amphibians are some of the first creatures to disappear when water quality declines because they have permeable skins that allow pollutants to pass directly through. The presence of adult hellbenders means water quality has been stable for quite awhile.

Former DEP Secretary David Hess says the Pittsburgh region went through a time when hot wastewater from steel mills was dumped into rivers at the same time drinking water was being pulled out. Things are much better now: 56 species of fish instead of five or six in the 1960s, but there are challenges as well from things like Marcellus Shale drilling, which he says will change the environmental landscape.

Hess says local watershed groups have accomplished amazing restoration and mine reclamation in Western Pennsylvania—often with state grants through the Growing Greener program, but that ends this year with much left to do, and the state’s partnership in such efforts has decreased substantially over the past seven years after the loss of 600 positions at DEP and a 26% budget cut. Hess says no organization can do what it's done in the face of such downsizing, though people are pretending they can.

The Water Matters! Global Water Conference, open to the public, takes place at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center from 8 to 4 on June 3rd, and there are many local activities planned for World Environment Day on June 5th.

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