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York College streams project addresses ‘quintessential real-world problem’

Civil engineering students sit around table discussing stream study.
Geo Loughran, Josh Sims, Zachary Kissner (L to R) work with an ALLARM volunteer to learn about how to measure water conductivity.

Derogatory references to the “inky, stinky Codorus Creek” used to draw snickers in York County. But the health of the creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River, and other area streams is no laughing matter.

As Dr. Josh Wyrick, assistant professor of Civil Engineering at York College of Pennsylvania, points out, “The Susquehanna River is the biggest watershed flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.” And the bay “is getting a lot of attention about its water quality.”

For decades, the bay has been cited as one of the nation’s “impaired waters” because of nutrient pollution, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“Anything we can do within the watershed here will have big ramifications downstream in the Chesapeake Bay,” Dr. Wyrick says.

As part of a yearlong project-based learning exercise, York College Civil Engineering and Biology majors are testing the waters of the Codorus and Tyler Run, a stream that cuts through the campus and empties into the creek north of the school.

Measuring the problem

The students have set up two monitoring stations on Tyler Run and two on the Codorus. They collect samples once a month, conduct rigorous lab tests for pollutants, and forward the results to a regional database. That database is managed and curated by ALLARM, which also provided monitoring equipment and a training workshop for the project. 

Dr. Wyrick, whose specialty is watershed hydrology, notes that the college, like every entity in the county, has an impact on the waterways. The campus uses fertilizer on its grounds. It de-ices its roadways and parking lots with salt.

“Since all that happens on campus, we wanted to have an understanding of how our maintenance affects water quality,” he says.

Civil Engineering can play a positive role in preventing pollution, he adds.

“The way that pollution and water runoff get into streams is based on how the infrastructure is designed,” he explains. “Runoff from a parking lot goes into a stream. Civil engineers could design to prevent that from happening.”

Sophomore Zach Kissner, a Civil Engineering major from Adams County, is testing water from the Codorus. Biology major Arianna Evans of York County, also a sophomore, tests Tyler Run samples. The work, they say, is exacting.

“We have to use a digital device to measure dissolved salts, use two chemical reagents to test for nitrates and a pH testing kit to test the alkalinity of the water,” Zach says. 

A two-hour training session ensured that the students’ tests would be scientifically accurate.

“We learned to calibrate the tracer tester for conductivity and water temperature,” Arianna says. “We learned what is the best way to read the pH meter.”

They also learned how to avoid contamination that could skew the data.

The effects of pollution

Dr. Wyrick says construction, agricultural and rooftop runoff has degraded many streams.

Having grown up in the area, Zach says he’s witnessed the problem.

“I mainly see the effects of runoff from streets,” he says. “Salt on the road or dirt from tires ‒ motor oils is a huge issue. It pours right into the stream.”

Arianna cites how minute the effects can be.

“My immediate thought is about the organisms living there that depend on the water for survival, how it will affect the environment,” she says.

She hopes the project helps to open people’s eyes to the watershed problem.

“This is a small step, a small college working on this, but I hope it will become a bigger part and expand,” she says.

Learning by doing

Dr. Wyrick says the streams project addresses “the quintessential real-world problem.”

“We can talk about water pollution and infrastructure design,” he says. “Going out and doing is what is going to connect what happens in the classroom to what is actually happening.”

Performing water-quality tests, rather than just reading about them, is giving Zach an insider’s look at the process.

“It gives me an appreciation for scientists who compile all this data that you never really see if you’re just looking at tables and books,” he says.

Being part of the solution gives Arianna a broader view of the problem.

“I feel like I can see how this is affecting, on a bigger scale, the bay and the Susquehanna. That’s pretty important,” she says. “I feel I’m making a difference.”

Next semester, Zach and fellow students will travel to Costa Rica to assess tourism’s effects on the environment. He envisions a career focused on water quality but also would like to work with bridges, “something structural.”

After graduation, Arianna wants to enroll in veterinary school and work with small animals, specializing in reproduction. She hopes to help save animals in danger of extinction, including big cats in Africa.