'Water Sentinels' collect baseline river data

Matt Richmond
July 24, 2012

On a humid Wednesday in July, Kathy Cronin crouches in Pierce Creek in the City of Binghamton. The creek empties into the Susquehanna River just upstream from the city water treatment plant. Houses line the creek banks and the sounds of the freeway can drown out the creek's churn.

Cronin, who lives in Binghamton, dips a small, electronic meter into the water. Scott Lauffer, another local resident, is standing just downstream, waiting for the results.

"Alright, we got a conductivity reading of 435 and a total dissolved solid reading of 210 and we record that on our data sheet."

They're measuring those two indicators - conductivity and total dissolved solids - because if they rise dramatically that means the stream's probably contaminated with fracking wastewater.

Right now, high-volume hydraulic fracturing still hasn't come to this watershed. Lauffer and Cronin are collecting baseline data as part of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels program. Their goal is to collect a year's worth of readings before any wells are drilled nearby.

"And we want to be able to say to them this stream always looked like this before you came and now it looks like this. There is no precedent for that."

If their monitoring shows raised levels from drilling, they'll send samples for detailed testing to a lab. One place that does testing is the Community Science Institute. It's an Ithaca non-profit that has started water monitoring efforts in advance of fracking in the Southern Tier

The institute is training volunteers in the five counties that are likely to see drilling first. Becky Bowen is the institute's outreach coordinator. She says volunteers are looking for the more subtle signs of pollution from drilling.

"Catastrophes are not really hard to spot, we know when there's been an explosion or a big spill, we don't need volunteers to monitor for that, we know when that happens."

At the Sierra Club, Jessica Helm says the monitoring that volunteers can do is impossible for the Department of Environmental Conservation to keep up with.

"So the DEC, if it were working at perfect capacity, it still wouldn't be able to cover all of the watersheds we have in New York State."

And the DEC appears to be working at far-from-perfect capacity. The agency has lost a fifth of its workers since 2008. Also, according to a report by the environmental group Earthworks, the agency's travel budgets have been cut and three-quarters of the state's existing wells go uninspected each year.

For volunteers like Kathy Cronin, that history is not a good omen for how the DEC might handle hydrofracking

"I'm not sure what they need to do, I just know they need to do more."

So volunteers like Cronin and Lauffer will continue visiting their streams every month if and when fracking comes to New York.