Environmental Work Shows Little Sewickley Creek Unspoiled After 40 Years

Dr. Jana Patton-Vogt

More than four decades of scientific documentation may be paying off for Ed Schroth, adjunct professor of biology, and others who enjoy Little Sewickley Creek.

The 9-mile-long stream that courses through Sewickley Heights and five neighboring communities is being considered by the state as the first "exceptional quality" stream in Allegheny County. Only four percent of the Pennsylvania's waterways share this ranking.

Schroth first introduced Little Sewickley Creek as a living biology laboratory to students at Quaker Valley High School in the 1970s, with the support of the Little Sewickley Watershed Association, then to Duquesne students in 1999.

As an undergraduate in Duquesne's biology program, Nate Reinhart started working Little Sewickley Creek with Schroth and, while obtaining his master's in environmental science and management this year, helped to document the stream's unique status. According to information shared since October 2012 with local municipalities, the Allegheny Land Trust and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the stream is as vibrant as it was when Schroth started monitoring it.

The DEP inspected the stream in March. Schroth's scientific data shows Little Sewickley Creek should support brook trout, and fingerlings of the selective, native wildlife were released into the creek earlier this month.

The limestone bed of Little Sewickley Creek, unusual in Western Pennsylvania, serves as a natural filter, impacting the stream's acidity cycles and chemistry. Because limestone streams don't appear until east of Harrisburg, one difficulty in presenting documentation for the designation is that Little Sewickley has no true reference stream—a required comparison.

"Ensuring an abundant supply of clean water has become an increasingly critical national environmental and economic imperative," said Dr. David Seybert, dean of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences. "The long-term, dedicated investigation by Ed and his co-workers on this stream will serve as an exemplar of what a strong community and academic partnership can accomplish."

Rightfully, the creek is a source of community pride. A graduate student examining economic spinoffs of this watershed—its impact on recreation, health, even road maintenance—found it is worth more than $17 million a year to Sewickley area residents, Schroth said, including hunt club riders, bicyclers, hikers and families who are so protective of the creek that they've grilled Schroth and his team in the field.

"The secret to protecting the environment is the community has to feel ownership," Schroth said. "If they don't feel ownership, it's not going to be a sustainable effort. The take-home message in this whole thing is how to communicate scientific data to lay people so they understand how it affects them and what it means to them."

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