On a humid Wednesday in July, Kathy Cronin crouched in Pierce Creek in the City of Binghamton. The creek empties into the Susquehanna River just upstream from the city's water treatment plant.
Houses line the creek banks and the sounds of the freeway drown out the urban waterway's churn.
Cronin, who lives in Binghamton, dipped a small, electronic meter into the water. Another local resident, Scott Lauffer, stands just downstream, waiting to hear Cronin read off results.
“Alright, we got a conductivity reading of 435 and a total dissolved solid reading of 210 and we record that on our data sheet,” says Lauffer.
They are measuring those two indicators - conductivity and total dissolved solids – because if they rise dramatically the stream is probably contaminated with fracking wastewater.
According to Lauffer, if those numbers triple, that amounts to a problem.
Preparing for industry
Right now, high-volume hydraulic fracturing still has not come to this watershed.
During the past four years, the Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) has been conducting an environmental review of fracking.
New York has more than 70,000 miles of rivers and streams running through it and opponents of hydrofracking say the controversial practice poses a risk to the state's waterways.
When a fracked well starts to produce gas, much of the millions of gallons of water that went down the well comes out with the gas. That wastewater, which includes salty brine and metals that were already underground, has been found in streams and rivers in nearby Pennsylvania -- where the industry is already in full swing.
Lauffer and Cronin are collecting baseline data as part of the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels program. Without measurements before drilling starts, it will be difficult to connect pollution to a new well. The goal of the monitors is to collect a year’s worth of readings before any wells are drilled nearby.
“And we want to be able to say to them this stream always looked like this before you came and now it looks like this. There is no precedent for that,” says Cronin.
Testing for low-level pollution
If this monitoring shows raised levels from drilling, they will send samples for detailed testing to a lab like the Ithaca-based non-profit Community Science Institute, which has started its own water monitoring efforts.
The institute is training volunteers in the five Southern Tier counties that are likely to see drilling first.
Volunteers are looking for the more subtle signs of pollution from drilling.
“Catastrophes are not really hard to spot, we know when there’s been an explosion or a big spill, we don’t need volunteers to monitor for that, we know when that happens,” says Becky Bowen, the institute’s outreach coordinator.
the monitoring that scores of volunteers can do is impossible for the Department of Environmental Conservation to keep up with.
“So the DEC, if it were working at perfect capacity, it still wouldn’t be able to cover all of the watersheds we have in New York State,” says Jessica Helm, with the Sierra Club.
And the DEC appears to be working at far-from-perfect capacity. The agency’s has lost a fifth of its workers since 2008 due to budget cuts and attrition. Also, according to a report by the environmental group Earthworks, the agency’s travel budgets have been cut and three-quarters of the state’s existing wells are left uninspected each year.
For volunteers like Kathy Cronin, that history is not a good omen for how the DEC might handle hydrofracking.
“I’m not sure what they need to do," says Cronin. "I just know they need to do more.”