Recording the Vibrant Life of New York Waterways Threatened by Invasive Species and Fracking

Photograph by David Brown

Recording the Vibrant Life of New York Waterways Threatened by Invasive Species and Fracking

Video: An up-close look at underwater worlds.

By Susan Cosier
Published: 06/05/2013

The Finger Lakes region in western-central New York is a place with abundant water, from sprawling lakes to pristine waterfalls. Yet David O. Brown found himself drawn to a particular creek near his hometown of Ithaca. Over the past four years the videographer, wearing a snorkel and mask or full scuba gear, would dive in its crystal-clear water. He’d bring his video camera and shoot footage of life below the surface. In one spot, roots from a nearby tree held the bank in place, fish weaving in and out of the spindly tendrils. It looked like a mangrove, hundreds of miles from the tropics. One time Brown drifted 20 yards downstream, ending up near a storm drain where a parking lot abuts the waterway.

Lakes, Streams, and Vernal Pools in the Finger Lakes Region

“The water turns into a sewer, and all that life is confined upstream,” says Brown. “Water should never be treated as a nonrenewable resource; it should always be treated with the respect it deserves as the foundation of life on the planet.”

That stream, and how different it was from the one Brown remembered from his childhood, was one of reasons he decided to embark on a new project to document the state of the region’s lakes, streams, and ephemeral pools before the most drastic effects of invasive species and the threat of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, appear in full force. Brown, with funding from Toyota’s TogetherGreen fellowship and the Park Foundation, filmed 6 lakes, 10 streams and rivers, and 2 vernal pools. The project, titled BASELINE, offers underwater footage, paired with water-quality data collected by the Finger Lakes Institute, to schools and nonprofits free of charge.

“People are very surprised when they see what’s going on down there,” he says. “They’re really thrilled to know there’s that much life down there, and I just get a kick out of that. A lot of people aren’t aware of what’s here because most people don’t put on a mask [and look beneath the surface].”

Caught on camera are spawning salamanders, a northern water snake slithering across the water’s surface, and a male American toad riding on a female as she lays her eggs. Smallmouth bass and bowfin appear in his footage, as does a pumpkinseed sunfish hovering over its nest to protect its young. Although Brown focused on endemic species, he did see and document invasives, including European round gobies and Asiatic clams. Aquarium owners often dump the contents of their tanks—including nonnative species—in streams when they no longer want them. “They fundamentally alter the ecosystem,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest threat to the region’s waterways is fracking, a process energy companies use to extract oil and natural gas from the ground. To bring those nonrenewable fossil fuels to the surface, companies pump a concoction of water and sand mixed with such chemicals as benzene and toluene into the underlying formation. Some experts estimate that 40 percent of the water can be recovered, meaning it comes back to the surface after it’s used, “but that’s 40 percent of millions of gallons that go down, and when [the water] comes back up, it’s not usable,” says Brown. The rest of the liquid stays underground. Furthermore, fracking and the accompanying infrastructure may also pollute waterways.

Erosion and habitat destruction from road building and land clearing can have serious effects on water quality and wildlife, says Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University who has studied fracking and its effects on water. To get a well into operation also requires approximately 1,000 truck trips, and there can be up to 10 wells on a single pad. “That also has water implications; it has implications for noise and even air quality, which can impact wildlife as well,” he says.

Currently there’s a moratorium on fracking in New York, but it’s going strong in nearby Pennsylvania, where a number of problems with the method—including contaminated drinking water and alleged health issues—aren’t being addressed.

“If we are serious about looking out for generations to come,” says Brown, “we have to think long-range and not go trading [water] for nonrenewables like fossil fuel.”

Whether or not fracking is ultimately allowed in the region, Brown’s footage might serve as a baseline, so that students, state agencies, and conservationists can see how the area’s waterways change over time. In the short term he’s hopeful that people who haven’t donned masks themselves are inspired by his footage to protect their waterways when they catch a glimpse of the vibrant variety of life below.

Lakes, Streams, and Vernal Pools in the Finger Lakes [nid:145071]

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Susan Cosier

Susan Cosier is former senior editor at Audubon magazine. Follow her on Twitter @susancosier.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine