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How does Pennsylvania grade its streams? It shocks the trout

The effort to classify all of Pennsylvania's 83,000 miles of streams is a painstaking process and one that few other states bother with.

A tiny brook trout netted in a small stream in Pinchot State Forest near Wilkes-Barre.
A tiny brook trout netted in a small stream in Pinchot State Forest near Wilkes-Barre.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Wearing chest-high waders and carrying a long metal probe, Katelynn Sallack plunged into a crystalline stream deep in Pennsylvania's Pinchot State Forest. Attached to her beeping backpack, a wire cable dragged behind like the tail of a tadpole.

The equipment sent 605 volts into the water, stunning a tiny brook trout, which floated to the top. Sallack called out to Dan Collins, who rushed over to scoop it into a net. It was later set free, unharmed.

The effort to classify all of Pennsylvania's 62,725 streams, totaling 83,000 miles, is a painstaking process and one that few other states bother with. Since 2010, the state's Fish and Boat Commission has worked with the nonprofit Trout Unlimited to help classify about 32,000 miles of streams so far.

Sallack and Collins, both interns with Trout Unlimited, are part of a six-member crew spending weeks on the road this summer in some of Pennsylvania's most pristine wilderness areas.

Anglers count on their work to find the wildest streams. But their findings could have bigger implications in the years to come as the Trump administration seeks to roll back environmental regulations.

Trout are a proxy for a stream's overall health.  Class A wild trout streams, which have the highest mass of naturally reproducing trout, qualify as high-quality waters under Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Law.

That affords them protection. The Department of Environmental Protection also gets the data to use in issuing construction permits. Classifications can dictate when, and where, developers will build, mines will locate or natural gas pipelines will run.

The stream that the Trout Unlimited crew surveyed lies about six miles northeast of Jack Frost Ski Resort in Lackawanna County. It braids through dense woods and wetlands before emptying into Sand Spring Creek, which flows into the Lehigh River.

Bob Weber, a biologist with the Fish and Boat Commission, was on hand to monitor and verify the Trout Unlimited fieldwork. He runs the commission's Unassessed Waters Initiative, which began as a pilot program in 2010.

Weber said it's imperative that all data be accurate for use by recreational fishermen and for standing up to potential legal challenges to construction permits.

Kathleen Lavelle, a biologist and field coordinator for Trout Unlimited, said the stream assessments are conducted from June through October when spawning begins.

Data including pH, temperature, geographical coordinates, and biomass — the number of fish counted, weighed and measured — all figure into a stream's classification.

The stream the group waded through was almost perfect, she said. The pH measured about 7, which is neutral, and the temperature of the water was 54 degrees — optimal conditions for brook trout. The smallest was about an inch. The biggest was nearly 7 inches.

The number of brook trout caught — 24 in the morning assessment session — was also a good indicator the stream was Class A and wild, Lavelle said. Pennsylvania also has large numbers of brown trout, an invasive species.

"Brook trout is an indicator of cleaner water," said Lavelle, who has seen highly acidic streams near old mines devoid of trout.

But cleanliness isn't their only concern. Lavelle's crew is also trying to discover whether a stream is permanent, which can prove critical in determining its classification.

The stream Trout Unlimited was working on this week appeared to be a perennial stream — meaning it flows all year. A second visit, however, might be warranted.

"We have surveyed streams that were dry one year and you come back the next year and find it running with trout," Weber said.

These tiny tributary streams, also known as headwaters, feed big rivers and are an important source of drinking water. Many are known as intermittent or ephemeral, meaning they run only after heavy rains or after snow melts. In Pennsylvania, 64 percent of stream miles are in headwaters.

Trout Unlimited forwards all the data collected from its stream surveys to the Fish and Boat Commission, which will ultimately determine classifications.

Conservationists say the efforts to classify waterways could take on greater urgency as the Trump administration seeks to roll back a 2015 Obama-era rule known as the Waters of the United States, or WOTUS.  At issue is whether the federal government has the authority  over the kind of streams Lavelle and her crew waded through.

Advocates fear a new federal definition could open the state to weaker laws down the road.

The battle over headwaters traces back to the original Clean Water Act in 1972 that sought pollution controls over what Congress loosely termed "navigable waters."  Later regulation defined that to include intermittent streams and wetlands.

But years of continued legal wrangling, including two Supreme Court rulings, muddied the issue. The Obama administration sought to bring the language back more closely to before the court rulings and establish a clearer definition. In essence, it would re-establish wider ranging federal government authority over streams and wetlands.

That outraged Republicans and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which said the new definition could open up farmers  to oversight on every ditch, gully or pond on their land. So the Obama definition got hung up in court and was never implemented.

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency, under administrator Scott Pruitt, said it was seeking a new definition, as laid out by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in a 2006 case. Scalia, writing for one side in a split court, said federal oversight should apply to "relatively permanent" waters with a "continuous surface" connected to large rivers and streams.

But conservationists said headwater streams don't necessarily flow all the time. Leaving them out could expose water downstream to pollution.

The Trump administration has opened up its new definition for public comment and will likely decide this year.

But political wrangling was far from the minds of the Trout Unlimited crew after several hours of work deep in the forest. The group had surveyed about half a mile of water, as well as a culvert.

"It's important for these trout streams to be protected," Weber said, standing next to a culvert that allowed the trout to pass under a macadam road. "But we can't protect them until we know what's in there. As a biologist, a scientist, and a public servant, this is critical."