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Stewardship Backed by Science: the Stroud Water Research Center

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On a gentle green hill in Avondale, Pa., in a 24,820-square-foot facility, world-renowned researchers are studying the water you drink.

The highly sophisticated work the researchers do at The Stroud Water Research Center impacts the world’s most essential natural resource.

“I don’t think there is a comparable institution in the country, maybe the world,” says Dr. Bernard Sweeney, the center’s president and director. The center focuses exclusively on freshwater streams, a concentration that other institutions incorporate into their programs to some degree, but none with the depth and dedication of Stroud.

The Stroud Water Research Center

James Jordan calls the Stroud Center a “truly world-recognized” facility. Jordan is executive director of the Brandywine Valley Association (BVA), a nonprofit organization that works to protect and preserve the Brandywine creek. Impressed by the scope of the research, he says Stroud far exceeds a local or regional impact, and should be considered instead on a global level. The research they do, says Jordan, can be utilized and implemented locally, but is changing water research worldwide.

In 1966, environmental scientist Dr. Ruth Patrick teamed up with friends and outdoors enthusiasts W.B. Dixon “Dick” and Joan Stroud to establish a long-term research center. Patrick had the intellectual curiosity and the background in freshwater stream research. The Strouds shared her passion for nature and drive to protect it, and they had the resources to purchase property on the banks of White Clay Creek.

The property they purchased was, 250 years ago, owned by Laetitia Penn, daughter of Pennsylvania settler William Penn. Sweeney delves into this well-loved tale when asked about the center’s founding and why Patrick specifically chose this location. The water here was in very good condition, he says, though it’s not known for certain why that is. With his next breath he offers what he clearly considers to be the best explanation. Laetitia Penn inherited the tract of land from her father and, because of her great wealth, did not need to overwork the land or fell the trees, actions that would disturb the integrity of the creek. It was left to flow and develop naturally.

Today local landowners continue to preserve the pristine stream. They discourage further development, knowing the importance of the Stroud Center’s mission and study. White Clay Creek is also protected by state and federal designations. It has been named both a National Wild and Scenic River and a Pennsylvania Exceptional Value Watershed, and the National Science Foundation values it as a Long-term Experimental Ecological Reserve.

Mayflies serve as water health indicators.

 

Thanks to these protections, the creek’s integrity has been preserved, allowing the Stroud Center faculty and staff to observe the behavior and function of a natural stream system.

The dual mission at Stroud, originally a field research station under the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, is to engage in long-term study of freshwater stream systems and translate and share findings through established educational programs.

Since the early 1990s, Stroud researchers have been conducting similar, parallel studies on a tropical freshwater stream system at the Maritza Biological Station in Costa Rica. In 1988, tropical ecologist Dan Jansen approached Stroud scientists. Jansen was starting a project in northern Costa Rica, setting aside a research park in a tropical ecological site. He invited the Stroud Center to get involved. After an expedition to visit the site, the researchers at the center took him up on the offer.

The site was the tropical equivalent of White Clay Creek. Tucked in the rich, undisturbed rainforest of Costa Rica, the future home of the Maritza station was miraculously pristine.

Thanks to its generous endowment and other funds, the Stroud Center purchased buildings and facilities in the research park, which they subsequently donated to the Costa Rican government.

James Jordan applauds this collaboration with a Third World country and concern for its water supply. As the BVA representative says, the impact of Stroud reaches far past the borders of Chester County or even the U.S. The center’s concern for fresh water transcends borders.

The center pays an annual rent for its continual presence in the Maritza Station, where Stroud faculty members have been stationed since the 1990s. It’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to study a stream system as clean and natural as can be found in Central America. The experiments in the virginal tropical forest at Maritza serve as a long-term parallel study with the temperate waters of White Clay Creek. Researchers compare the behavior of stream systems in two distinct climate zones, arriving at a deeper understanding of stream systems and watersheds.

The Wetlab

 

When it comes to temperate freshwater experiments, Stroud has a unique edge: the Wetlab, a greenhouse-like lab where indoor flowing streams have been constructed, allowing for controlled experiments. Sweeney calls it “the bread and butter of the research programs.”

“I can’t think of any other institution that does the unbiased research that they do,” Jordan says of Stroud, calling the center’s hard science “unparalleled.”

“We can do experiments that no one else can really do,” Sweeney agrees. The Wetlab is a different approach to freshwater experiments, establishing quasi-natural systems that are easier for researchers to control and observe.

In the Wetlab, the faculty tests the impact of variables like phosphorus levels, acid mine drainage, and fracking fluid. Not only does the Wetlab make it easier for researchers to observe and document their discoveries, but it also allows them to introduce these pollutants and contaminants to the stream with no real damage. They see how the stream reacts in the lab without sacrificing the integrity of the creek outside.

Understanding is only half of the Stroud Center’s goal. Once the researchers discover something about how the stream systems work, the next step is to spread the word with the center’s educational programs.

“Our educators are really translators of our science,” says Sweeney. They repackage research findings into sound bites and educational materials for students of all ages.

Students identify macroinvertebrates during a Stream School program

 

Stroud Center educators don’t want to give the same highly technical, field-specific lectures over and over. What they study and discover is highly complex, but also highly important, so they translate the information and transform the educational experience. Many Stroud programs are hands-on: The students have fun and discover how to apply the information they learn in order to benefit their community, and eventually, their world.

This is the ultimate goal, says Sweeney. The big, long-term end is global water preservation and conscious stewardship. It’s why Stroud researchers are wading through rivers across the globe, hunching over their microscopes, and scribbling furious notes. They are acutely aware of what much of the world dimly knows: that our fresh water is incomparably precious, and that it requires a higher level of care and devotion.

Sweeney considers the educational programs at Stroud to be the more obvious of the center’s benefits but cites another, more important way the center impacts the local community: It drives policy and legislative change to improve both the quantity and the quality of fresh water. Jordan agrees, admiring the work that Stroud staff does to implement water-protection policies.

With the global population rapidly approaching 8.5 billion people, Sweeney says a key question to ask is whether there will be sufficient clean water for everyone. He believes it is possible.

“We have problems,” he admits. “But the solutions, guided by good science, are small changes in individual behavior.” Dr. Sweeney reminds people how interdependent they are: Water is shared and individuals are at the mercy of their neighbors. And not just the neighbors next door: Sweeney and Jordan both emphasize the global relevance of Stroud’s work.

Stream Language sculpture of trout and invertebrate that welcomes visitors to Stroud

 

The Stroud Center’s role is first to understand, then to educate, and ultimately to enable the population to live in the watershed and have it continue to provide clean, fresh water.

“It’s not rocket science,” Dr. Sweeney quips, adding, “In a way it’s more complicated than rocket science.” It’s not that the science is more difficult to understand or the calculations more complex. It’s people that complicate Stroud’s work.

The Stroud Water Research Center asks people to change how they do business, how they live. This relatively small, individual institution tucked in the woods in Pennsylvania has a global mission – motivating people through research and education to make changes that will preserve the supply of freshwater for the planet.

Learn more about the Stroud Center and how you can participate in their mission at www.stroudcenter.org.