Seniors sought to monitor waterways, improve environment

HOMER CITY, Pa. — Indiana County retiree John Dudash has spent nearly two decades monitoring the quality of water in streams and ponds near him, among other volunteer activities that relate to raising awareness of environmental issues.

The 79-year-old Homer City resident is president of his county’s chapter of the Senior Environment Corps, made up of volunteers 55 and older who plant trees, clean trails, study wildlife and take on other tasks.

But Dudash’s primary responsibility is visiting an abandoned mine site with a colleague every Monday morning, using instruments that assess the content of the water that eventually flows into Crooked Creek. That information goes into a data base that helps government officials verify whether a treatment system is properly reducing the level of iron and other hazardous metals in the water.

“To me, we’re the first-alert people,” said Dudash. “I used to be an Eagle Scout, and one of the things we learned is you gotta make your campground better than what you found it.”

That’s the kind of attitude leaders of the Senior Environment Corps are hoping to breed elsewhere in Western Pennsylvania. Closer to Pittsburgh, chapters of the organization that existed previously in Allegheny and Washington counties fell by the wayside over the years due to changes in leadership of the program, but a new effort is underway in Beaver County to organize volunteers there.

Jeff Leindecker, agricultural conservationist for the Beaver County Conservation District, hopes creation of a local Senior Environment Corps chapter will bring a flood — or at least stream — of manpower to monitor the many small waterways that can be polluted by farm operations, land development or other factors.

“We have a watershed specialist on staff, and she does education and stream monitoring, but she’s just one person,” Leindecker said. With a group of senior volunteers, what can be accomplished is “easily tenfold of what we can do now, if not double that. It’s just a lot of time to get out and collect this data.”

The Senior Environment Corps was started in Pennsylvania in 1997 by the Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement. The latter group ceased to exist in 2007, and the program has been run for the past several years by a nonprofit group known as Nature Abounds.

Nature Abounds president Melinda Hughes of DuBois, Pa., said the 21 corps chapters across the state include about 350 members. A local host organization such as a county conservation district typically helps define responsibilities, and Nature Abounds provides monitoring equipment and training for those older adults looking to help in the outdoors. Hughes has had preliminary discussions with the Allegheny County Conservation District that she hopes will lead to a new local chapter in 2017.

“There are social aspects to it, like a lot of people being retired and looking to get out of the house,” Hughes said. “You also get that sense of commitment from the older generation. A lot of seniors can picture how to restore something back to what it was in yesteryear. … We have some biologists who come out and want to put those skills to use.”

But the advantage of modern instruments, she said, is that you don’t have to be a scientist to be a water quality monitor. You just have to be able to make it on foot to a stream or creek identified as one that merits evaluation. For safety reasons, the volunteers work in teams.

With more than 600 farms in Beaver County, Leindecker said, there’s potential for damaging runoff from fertilizers and manure without local officials being aware of the problem or source. Large waterways such as the Ohio and Beaver rivers and Raccoon and Connoquenessing creeks are too large for the volunteers to help pinpoint problems, but he said they can make a difference with the smaller streams “you can practically walk through, to start at the source.”

“We’re looking first and foremost for water quality monitoring, but if there’s a group that wants to clean up trails, clean up litter, we’ll help them identify where to help by working with the county and municipal parks officials,” Leindecker said.

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