UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. — Scientists with federal and state agencies, academic researchers, environmental consultants, and watershed group volunteers have collected water-quality data for years as part of efforts to monitor the health of Pennsylvania’s waterways. However, while there is virtually a deluge of water-quality data, much of it has never been incorporated into a sustainable database accessible to both researchers and the public. That has just changed. A new database, using a platform supported by the National Science Foundation that channels available water quality data into a searchable format, was demonstrated at the Shale Network 2012 Workshop at Penn State’s University Park campus in April.

The workshop was part of the Shale Network, a multi-institutional initiative funded by NSF to track potential impacts of gas shale activity, including that of the Marcellus.

"Our goal is to create a database of water quality and quantity that will be helpful in decision making because the more data that are available, the better the decisions that can be made," said Susan Brantley, principal investigator for the Shale Network and director of the Penn State Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. "The power of data is in sharing."

Interest in sharing water quality data was common among the more than 40 workshop participants, who represented a mix of academic institutions, nonprofits, watershed groups, the environmental industry, and county, state, and federal agencies.

The group also explored the new HydroDesktop Web service to examine water quality in areas where shale gas is being actively developed. HydroDesktop is software that acts like a Web browser to search for data about water quality and quantity. At the workshop, participants were taught how to use HydroDesktop to find online data from the ShaleNetwork database as well as other public water quality databases.

"With more information, we will be able to see patterns and anomalies in stream health," said Ann Donovan with the Centre County Conservation District, who works with monitoring teams for the Beech Creek Watershed.

Besides making hard-to-find data publicly available, the database also holds the promise of making data collection more consistent. Establishing protocols will ensure data quality, as will putting data online for scrutiny, Brantley said.

"We want to act as an ‘honest broker’ by collating and synthesizing the data collection that is occurring throughout the Marcellus Shale region," Brantley added.

Pennsylvania has a long history of water monitoring with 580 organizations focused on watersheds, according to a 2005 survey by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. More than half of those are community-based or volunteer organizations doing stream monitoring. But the number of members and organizations are growing — sparked largely by concerns that the state’s burgeoning natural gas industry may be threatening high quality and exceptional value streams.

"We have people who are engaged in stream monitoring that I had never dreamed would get engaged — church groups, farmers," said Julie Vastine, director of the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring, Dickinson College, which has been providing scientific and technical training to watershed associations for 25 years to carry out stream assessments. "They’re getting their waders on because they want to understand what is happening in their backyard, and they are turning to science to help them."

The ShaleNetwork is a collaboration of researchers at Dickinson College, the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydologic Science, Inc., that works to compile scientifically valid data and make it available for research and public access. In addition to developing the searchable database, the project also is examining the interplay between scientists and community watershed groups — that is, community members without formal scientific training — in data collection and knowledge generation.