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Urban Watersheds:
Water Quality in Allegheny County, PA

Ecology and Environmental Education Reference Materials

Grade 7 -10 - 12
JoAnn Albert, Reiko Goto

Why water quality in urban watershed?

Three rivers: the Allegheny River, the Monongahela River, and the Ohio River define our region. Water quality is not only important for fishing or boating in a public places, but rivers are also the defining public-space element of our urban environment. The simple fact is that we have 90.5 miles of rivers and 2024 miles of streams in Allegheny County. Measuring, water quality in terms of physical chemistry, the ability to support life, in terms of biology to know what life is in the rivers, and in terms of pathogen indicators the affect of cities and sewers on rivers tells us how well we are caring for historic waters of the region. Water is always nearby, it is an essential element of the quality of life in our region. Water defines of our daily life and our travels.

Between the end of 1800’s and the 1980’s, industry and municipalities used the rivers as sources of water and as sinks for waste. Pollution was a way of life, some believe that it was a fair price to pay for a successful economy. Today, most of the mills have closed and nature has begun to restore herself. But pollutants from cities still impact the rivers. Today, rivers are very clean in dry weather and become sewers when it rains. (Streams are less improved in all weather conditions.1)

Human health and ecosystem health and water quality are all intertwined. That is why the Allegheny County Health Department issues CSO warnings (Combined Sewer Overflow) warnings each year during the recreational season. But we should all be able to understand the basic idea about water quality. When you think about the water quality in a river or stream, we suggest there are five important questions. First, does it look or smell clean? Second, can it support life? Third, is life in the body of water diverse? Fourth, does fecal mater affect the body of water? Fifth, do industrial pollutants affect the body of water? Casual observations can lead to identification of a source of pollution, but can only identify the type of pollution if a qualified water quality team is available to go on the water, take the appropriate samples and get those samples to an appropriate laboratory. We must all participate to achieve clean water.

Often our project has been asked by young people how they might get involved to to save and care for our rivers. The answer is we must all begin to understand the dynamic nature of our rivers and their relationship to the range of pollutants that wash off our streets and lawns as well as the problems that occur in older communities with combined sewer systems. Any student in Allegheny County can make a considerable contribution to what we need to know about water quality, by monitoring water quality in strategic stretches of streams throughout our 3 region. Saving our rivers could start from one school monitoring any one of the 56 tributaries and sub-watersheds in Allegheny county. For more information about a strategic approach to water quality study of our regional streams see the following text, which is also available here.

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Cover and Credits
Table of Contents

3 Rivers 2nd Nature Education Program

I. History of Pittsburgh's Riverfront

Pittsburgh's greates natural assests are its rivers. Throughout the city's history, the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio River have played a contradictory role. While functioning as an aesthetic and recreational resource, they have also been the center of our region's commerce, transportation, and industry.

II. Urban Watersheds
Streams and rivers are dynamic, ever-changing ecosystems. The diverse habitats found in or near a stream shelter distinct communities of plants and animals adapted to different conditions.

III. Water Quality Parameters
To understand what makes a healthy stream, we must explore a variety of stream components. Streams and rivers can be measured to determine the physical structure of the stream channel, the physical and chemical quality of the water, the presence of pathogenic organisms, and the type of biotic community they support. Examining these parameters and how they interact can be used to assess the overall condition of a waterway.

IV. The 3 Rivers 2nd Nature Study
The 3R2N water quality study focused upon surface water sampling to understand the potential for recreational uses There is a documented recovery of life (fish) in the rivers, there is less information about the streams. The Rivers are believed to be more affected by urban wet weather affects, so we sampled the rivers in both wet and dry weather conditions for the potential to support life and the impacts of an urban setting. We tried to understand the baseline condition in dry weather and the changes in wet weather. There is very little information about streams, so we sampled dry weather with the intention of understanding the potential for life, the existing life and the dry weather impacts of an urban setting. Rivers and streams in an urban setting are typically affected by stormwater the water that drains off urban lands, roads, roofs etc., and/or combined sewer overflows, (CSO’s) stormwater mixed with sewage which overflows in wet weather.

V. Classroom Activity 1: Awareness of Our River

This activity introduces students to their local river(s). They will create a concept map about the past, present, and future of the local rivers. Students begin by sharing their experience and memories about the river.

VI. Classroom Activity 2: Interperting Water Quality Data
This is designed to familiarize students with water quality interpretation before going into the field to do original research. Students will analyze water quality data, make correlation between different water quality indicators, and predict stream conditions and wildlife. Students will also use maps for spatial analysis and to visually represent their conclusions. The activity emphasizes the interdependence of water quality indicators. The goal of this exercise is for students to think critically about water quality and to make predictions about stream conditions, not just to report whether a particular indicator is "good" or "bad" at a given test site.

VII. Classroom Activity 3: Monitoring Our Watersheds
In this activity, students will collect critical data at selective testing sites and analyze urban watershed quality. Effective watershed analysis can include a wide variety of tests depending on the location and characteristics of the local watershed.

Academic Standards for Environment and Ecology