Additional information regarding the monitoring of the Lackawanna River by the Lackawanna River Corridor Association can be viewed at:
Lackawanna River Watch Report: Macroinvertebrate Collections, 1991-98
Standing in the Lackawanna River with a net, letting the water flow through the mesh to collect insects, twigs, and stones, can be exhilarating or just plain cold and wet.
The volunteers who work with the Lackawanna River Corridor Association definitely find it the former.
They go to the river several times a year to collect samples that will gauge the Lackawanna's water quality.
The LRCA has been conducting this program, called River Watch, for eight years, and has completed a study that compared recent data to measurements from the early 1990s.
The basic finding: water quality is generally good in the upper reaches of the river above Scranton. But through the city and down to the Lackawanna's confluence with the Susquehanna River, the water quality is poor.
"I think it shows that the river is resilient to a point. It's obviously able to recover in the upper portion of the watershed, but residue from our mining past and continued pollution like acid mine drainage are still a problem to be dealt with," said Bernie McGurl, LRCA executive director.
The water quality has changed only slightly since 1991 and 1992, he said. The polluted areas below Scranton have not improved, but parts of the North Scranton stretch of the river have improved slightly.
The cleanest sections in the Mid and Upper Valley have seen the greatest positive changes, he said.
The major factor polluting the river is acid mine drainage -- water that flows from the valley's coal mines into the Lackawanna -- and combined sewer overflows from pipes that empty excess storm and sewer water into the river.
"There are 70 combined sewer overflows in Scranton alone, so that's a continuous problem with no ready fix," Mr. McGurl said.
Another factor is sediment and runoff from parking lots, roads and new development in the region. This is something that can be addressed more easily, with measures like retention ponds, he said.
Meanwhile, the River Watch volunteers continue to collect samples. They venture out in teams of two, usually on Saturday mornings, to six points along the river and its tributary, Roaring Brook.
One team member holds a pole-mounted net in the water, letting the current flow through it. The river bottom is much more slippery than one would think. At this time of year, frigid water rushes around the legs, and the volunteers move carefully to avoid ending up on their backs with a splash.
The other volunteer "agitates" some of the rocks upstream from the net, moving them around with his feet or hands. The action loosens some of the insects the team is looking for. As flies in their larval stage, they live on the river bottom.
The volunteers take their samples back to a laboratory at the University of Scranton, where they sort through them and identify the insect species.
FLIES ARE THE KEY
Some types of flies, like mayflies and stoneflies, are less tolerant of pollution. They are the kind the volunteers hope to find, because they can live only in pretty clean water.
On a recent afternoon on the river in North Scranton, a group of volunteers -- King's College professor Len Gorney, Ph.D., environmental consultant Ed Shoener and his son, Eddie, aquatic biologist Art Popp and Mr. McGurl -- found several mayflies and stoneflies.
The slimy, leggy insects hid among the stones and twigs in the net, squirming.
"We've found the largest amount of species diversity upstream," said Mr. Popp, who is also LRCA's program manager.
Specifically, volunteers at the Forest City, Jermyn and North Scranton sites have been finding the stoneflies and mayflies.
Mr. Popp and Dan Townsend, Ph.D., a biology professor at the University of Scranton, compared data from 1997 and 1998 to figures from 1991 and 1992 and found the slight improvements upstream but continued pollution in Scranton and below.
"It's daunting what remains to be done," Mr. McGurl said of efforts to get rid of pollutants. "The long-term health of the river is what we're concerned with." .