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Ganna “Gigi” Chiponis dipped the measuring containers into the frigid water of the Sand Springs, which eventually will feed the  Northkill Creek on State Game Lands 110 near Shartlesville in northern Berks County.

This is one of the many headwater tributaries that feed the Tulpehocken Creek, which flows into the Schuylkill River at Reading and will flow through a number of communities before reaching Philadelphia.

The 20-year-old Penn State Berks Campus sophomore from Phoenixville was doing water quality testing with three of her classmates for her biological sciences class, a staple of second-year students.

This practical application of science had a little deeper meaning for her. She was at one of the sources of water that she has been drinking all her life.

“It’s definitely interesting to see that because we’re drinking something that’s going inside of our bodies. We need water to sustain life,” she said. ”So we definitely want good clean water.”

The water of Sand Spring is probably the purest water that will find its way into the Tulpehocken, but the measurements the students took at various points along the creek, ending at the confluence of the Plum and Tulpehocken Creeks near Reber’s Bridge in Bern Township below the Blue Marsh Dam, proved to be both predictable, yet surprising.

“When we looked at the numbers,” Gigi said, “the first water source we tested was basically pure water.” As the students moved farther downstream along the Tulpehocken, they could see a clear difference.

“But some of the tests weren’t that drastically different, which is definitely nice to see because you don’t want to see a big difference,” she said. “So definitely, it had a big impact.”

This is the first year that Penn State Berks has partnered with the Tulpehocken Creek Watershed Association, which was founded in 2018 and is under the umbrella of Berks Nature.

Mahsa Kazempour, Associate Professor of Science Education, has been requiring her students to do 10 hours of community service like this water testing since 2011. The hours don’t necessarily need to be spent in water testing but can be as varied as planting trees in the community.

Penn State Berks Campus students test the water quality of the Tulpehocken Creek. Photos courtesy of Penn State Berks.

“But what I find really nice about this project is it’s very empowering,” Mahsa said. “So the students when they finish this project, not only have they actually made a connection to the community, a lot of them don’t know the city of Reading; they don’t know Berks County; some of them may be from outside. Some of them may be from here, but they’ve never had that connection before.”

“So this puts them in touch with what’s going on in the community and gives them a sense that they’re doing service, but it sometimes goes a lot beyond that. What I really enjoy seeing is what they get out of it, and also what the community organizations get out of it too.”

And the members of the Tulpehocken Creek Watershed Association (TCWA) are happy for the help.

Steve Tricarico, the Chairperson of the TCWA, has developed relationships with a number of different organizations.

“We just really established this contact with Penn State just this past semester, which has been great,” he said. “We had some of their students do a sampling of the Tulpehocken Creek, so that’s been a good link.”

The TCWA over the last five years has worked with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Berks County Conservation District on a number of projects, he said.

As with any volunteer organization, though, the most challenging aspect is recruiting and retaining new members.

“We probably have an email list that I send out on a monthly basis of probably 35 names,” Steve said. “Out of those 35 names I say we have probably about eight-to-ten people are actually active. There’s a lot more to be done, but we need a lot more people power.”

Cindy Murdough, a recently retired Conrad Weiser science educator, has put in many hours of volunteer work for the TCWA utilizing her expertise in water quality. She had worked extensively with her students on water quality along the Furnace Creek near Robesonia.

“We walked in there and mainly did the macroinvertebrate study while some did the chemistry just to see how close we could get to an exceptional value stream at the headwaters and see what kind of critters lived there,” she said. “They’re the best indicator of stream health, and the kids were excited about that.”

Steve’s main concern, though, is with sediment control and runoff.

“Believe it or not, the worst pollutant in Pennsylvania is sediment,” he said. “Everybody thinks it’s only dirt; what’s wrong with dirt. What happens is when that sediment gets in the creek, it actually could suffocate all these aquatic lives that are depending on getting
oxygen out of the water.”

Volunteers from the TCWA partner with the Rangers of Blue Marsh Lake to identify freshwater mussel shells in the Tulpehocken Creek watershed.

Another area that concerns Steve is the nutrient runoff into the waterways.

Many people might think that farmers are responsible for most of the nutrient loads in the streams, but lawn fertilizer also has a major impact.

“So those are things that we’re looking for when we do our testing to see what their levels are,” he said.

The biggest worry the TCWA has for Blue Marsh Lake is the prevalence of algal blooms.

“I mean they’ve killed people’s pets,” he said. “Most people won’t ingest this because it looks slimy, but if you’re even just jet skiing, that stuff can turn into an aerosol, and you can breathe it and can
get it into your system.”

“Those are the things we’ve been trying to focus on,” he says a little wearily. “We’re still kind of small, and you know, we do the best we can.”

Other projects don’t revolve around water quality sampling but on quality of life.

TCWA members Claudia Mahon and Becky Williams have been co-chairs of the Blue Marsh Sensory Garden and logged around 200 hours the past year planting native plants including 30 native trees and removing invasive species in both the garden and along the Eyes of the Eagle loop trail.

They have also provided stewardship at the site of the Van Reed Paper Mill Dam removal and worked extensively on several projects at the Rentschler Arboretum in Penn Township.

Some of the comments left on the sensory trail log attest to the importance of the work done by these and other TCWA volunteers.

One reads:

“My first time back after hip replacement surgery. Didn’t go as smooth as I anticipated. Terrible pain. Haven’t healed like everyone said they healed. “But the forest and garden bring me healing and cheer me up!”

Healing and cheer – what all of us, humans and wild creatures alike, need most from nature.

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