86-year-old Volunteer A Model Watershed Conservationist

Joan Jessen is the 86-year-old treasurer of Chartiers Creek watershed. Jessen can rattle off the history of the watershed, south of Pittsburgh, as if it's her own history. But what concerns her, like other watershed leaders, is the future of the watershed group. She say that it just may be potential threats to the watershed that draws in the next generation of volunteers.

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JORDAN: We just heard/heard earlier from watershed group leaders who say that volunteers are their lifeline to survival. A few cited Joan Jessen, the 86-year-old treasurer of Chartiers Creek watershed, as a model volunteer. Jessen can rattle off the history of Chartiers Creek watershed, south of Pittsburgh, as if it's her own history. But what concerns her, like the other watershed leaders, is the future of the watershed group. She say that it just may be that potential threats to the watershed could be what draws in the next generation of volunteers. I spent some time with Jessen to learn more.

JESSEN: We're looking at the Canonsburg Lake, which is frozen over, and people are skiing on it, which is kind of interesting Ö hahaha


JORDAN: In addition to cross-country skiiers gliding across the lake's surface, several big rectangles of snow have been swept away from the ice for pickup hockey games. Fishermen have cut holes to the water below and they're waiting for a catch. But as picture-perfect as the scene looks, there are problems with the lake, the kind that Jessen stays up late trying to solve.

JESSEN: When it is snow covered like this it's hard to see how its filling in, but it really is a shame...when you can see a duck, whose legs are not that long standing, you realize how shallow the water has become.

JORDAN: Natural processes, plus housing developments loosening up the earth around the lake have contributed to sediment filling in the man-made lake. The surface has shrunk from 76 acres to 63 and its original depth of 42 feet is now more like 11. The Army Corps has outlined a plan to dredge the lake, but monies are scarce.

Jessen has long been interested in this kind of issue. She was raised on a Connecticut dairy farm, which she figures gave her an appreciation for the natural world. Jessen was a trained chemist, but quit professional work long ago to stay home with her kids. Once they grew up, Jessen and her husband decided she'd volunteer full-time. She worked with the League of Women Voters, which eventually led her to environmental causes. Water has always been important to Jessen. She's rafted through the Grand Canyon three times. But for Jessen, a waterway doesn't have to be monumental to be worthy of her time. Today she and a friend still enjoy walks around Chartiers Creek.

JESSEN: It's all I have, it's my home watershed. It has been badly abused but restoring it's important to the whole economy of the area as well as the...values it has, interesting area there is a lot of history in this area.

JORDAN: Indeed the perimeter of the watershed is a historical timeline of the region's industry. In one spot, there's a fenced up field where part of the work for the Manhattan Project took place.

JESSEN (and JORDAN): Marie curie visited here....wow...they refined uranium ore and the urianum for the first atomic bomb was produced here.

JORDAN: The steel plants that are signatures of our region, some still working, dot the edges of the creek. There's a vast farm where horses are bred and trained for harness racing at the popular nearby Meadows track.
And there's agriculture--this area has had a long sheep farming reputation.

Jessen stops her car to point out one dairy farm that straddles old and new industries in the watershed. While it's still farmed, the owner has leased land to a Marcellus Shale gas drilling operation in recent years. It's emblematic of the future of Chartiers Creek and other watersheds. Not only could drilling boost the economy, but some fear it could create a new set of problems. Jessen says she has mixed feelings about the booming natural gas industry.

JESSEN: It's a wonderful resource and generally I feel that natural gas is a better fuel source than most options...But it is very difficult to do the drilling in a way that is not going to do the environment some harm. So as I say, mixed feelings.

JORDAN: Jessen says that one thing is for certain--people are concerned about the impact about Marcellus drilling and that could help attract new volunteers and attention to their cause, and maybe more funding.

JESSEN: Any issue that people are concerned about can be a draw for membership if you can demonstrate...that we can have an effect. That we are not just stumbling around trying to do something and not accomplishing anything.

JORDAN: One way of accomplishing their work is by using new technology.

TEACHER and JESSEN: So how ya doin', Joan? Struggling but getting there (laughter) OK, so you want to actually check out a specific watershed, right? Yes...fade out words under

JORDAN: On a recent Friday night, in one of the few lit rooms at Washington and Jefferson College, Jessen and 20-some others from watershed groups and environmental agencies are learning about a new database that tracks pretty much anything related to Marcellus shale. Chartiers Creek Watershed Association has been monitoring the stream quality for years. But tonight they're learning to load their data into what's called Fractracker. That's in case shale drilling problems occur, they have a documented baseline, and information can be overlaid with other regional information. Jessen says that learning a new software can be challenging, so she's heartened that a 20-year-old student from California University, Ashley Szafraniec, is also taking the class.

Szafraniec's parents have been long-time volunteers with Jessen's group. Szafraniec was always interested in wetlands and hiking. But her concerns about Marcellus shale gas drilling, have really made her a volunteer in her own right.

SZAFRANIEC: One night they were flaring a gas well just miles from my house.. and just, the noise in the night, the whole sky was lit up and it was just surreal...after that i became really interested because I heard so much about how it could be damaging to our water and all that that i was already interested in.

JORDAN: Besides indulging her interests in the watershed biology, Szafraniec is soaking up the knowledge of Jessen and the others.

SZAFRANIEC: I'm always one of the youngest people in the work,... being able to be around all these adults who have so much experience...it's just really cool for me to be around and kind of draw off their experiences.

JORDAN: Szafraniec's words are pretty much music to Jessen's ears.

JESSEN: Volunteers do get tired, they get old. I speak from experience. But I need to know that there are people who are going to pick up and do the things that I'm doing.

JORDAN: Photos of Jessen and some of the sites around Chartiers Creek Watershed are at alleghenyfront.org. Next/later in the show... we'll hear from one of the key figures behind the fractracker database we discussed in this story.

The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds supports The Allegheny Front's coverage of watershed issues.

This is The Allegheny Front. I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan.