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Educator's Work Shows Little Sewickley Creek Unspoiled after 40 Years

More than four decades of scientific documentation may be paying off for Ed Schroth, adjunct professor of biology at Duquesne University, 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 an "exceptional quality" stream.  Despite the degradation of many Western Pennsylvania waterways, Little Sewickley Creek serves as a shining example of how conservation and community involvement can protect the environment. It could become the only "exceptional quality" stream in Allegheny County, joining only 4 percent of the state's waterways in this ranking.

"It has frogs, salamanders and trout, but the geology and hydrology, the basic structure of the stream, influences everything else," said Schroth. He 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, he helped to document the stream's unique status, sharing information with local municipalities, the Allegheny Land Trust and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The stream is now as vibrant as it was when Schroth started monitoring it, according to the 149-page petition.

"Sources of pollution? None," Schroth said. "We're very blessed with fresh water in Pennsylvania but acid mine drainage plays havoc in water beds. In 40 years of working on this stream, I never realized just how special it was."

The limestone bed of Little Sewickley Creek, unusual in Western Pennsylvania, serves as a natural filter, impacting the stream's acidity cycles and chemical makeup. 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.

Government agencies have seen and heard documentation, public comment and testimony since October 2012, and 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.

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.

The trail system is used by hunt club riders, bicyclers, hikers and families. People are so protective of the creek that they've grilled Schroth and his team as they go about their work.

"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. "  

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.