From 2011 to 2014, the National Science Foundation funded a study called the Watershed Knowledge Mapping Project (WKMP). This study was based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute under the direction of Abby Kinchy, a sociologist in the Department of Science and Technology Studies. The research examined the production of knowledge about the watershed impacts of unconventional shale gas drilling in New York and Pennsylvania.
Purpose: The research examined the policies and practices of state, multi-state, and federal water governance agencies. The research also examined the ways that “citizen scientists” have been mobilized to monitor the impacts of shale gas development on bodies of water. The purpose of the Watershed Knowledge Mapping Project was not to compile or analyze the water quality data resulting from watershed monitoring efforts. Instead, we sought to discover where surface water was being monitored and to document the extent of volunteer and other non-governmental efforts to carry out data collection efforts. A major objective of this project was to identify regions and watersheds that were not being monitored and required greater attention by governments, researchers, and the public. This research also enabled us to develop a deeper understanding of the practices of citizen science and its significance in the fracking debate.
Background: In the past several years, oil and gas companies have been pursuing sources of natural gas in the United States that were previously considered too difficult to access, including the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation located in the northeastern United States. In response to public concerns about the environmental impacts of Marcellus Shale natural gas development, there are now many efforts to gather data about watershed quality and to monitor pollution levels. These efforts include academic research, monitoring programs carried out by regulatory agencies, and volunteer water monitoring projects.
Research Methods: The study involved a survey of watershed protection groups, large-scale mapping of water monitoring efforts, interviews with scientists, volunteer water monitors, and other key informants, and focused case studies in several counties of Pennsylvania and New York. More details about data collection and analysis can be found on the Methods page.
- Public investments in watershed monitoring are highly uneven across the watersheds of New York and Pennsylvania. For example, in Pennsylvania, only about half of watersheds are monitored by state, federal, multistate, or local agencies on a continuous or frequent basis.
- Research uncovered a remarkably extensive effort by civil society organizations to monitor surface water quality in both Pennsylvania and New York. More than 55% of watersheds in the Marcellus Shale region are monitored by a civil society organization on a continuous or frequent basis.
- In over 20% of watersheds in the Marcellus Shale area, civil society organizations are the sole source of continuous or frequent monitoring data on surface water quality.
- Volunteer monitoring of the shale gas industry is more common in places where volunteers had previously been organized to monitor the impacts of other industries.