Our Heroes: Krissy Kasserman of Youghiogheny Riverkeeper

The next hero in our Know Your Waterkeeper series is Krissy Kasserman of the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper, a program of the Mountain Watershed Association (MWA). Formed in 1994 to fight a deep mine proposal in the Indian Creek Watershed, a sub-basin of the Youghiogheny River, the MWA successfully defeated the proposal, then dedicated itself to cleaning up 125 years of poor mining practices in the area. In 2003, MWA partnered with Waterkeeper Alliance to create the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper, and their work now covers the larger Youghiogheny River watershed. Krissy has been the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper since 2006. She's also active in northern West Virginia environmental issues and serves on the board of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

Krissy grew up in West Virginia and currently lives in the Laurel Highlands region of Pennsylvania. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education from West Liberty University with certifications in Social Sciences and Environment and Ecology. She also holds a Master of Professional Studies in Community and Economic Development from Penn State University. Krissy loved water from an early age, after having spent much of her childhood paddling, swimming and fishing in the Ohio River

When was the first time you thought to yourself, "I need to protect this body of water?"

The Mountain Watershed Association became home of the Youghiogheny (Yough for short) Riverkeeper program in 2003. When offered the opportunity to become the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper in 2006, I jumped on it. I am in love with this central Appalachian landscape. I've spent my life paddling, trail running and biking here, and I remain completely enamored by our mountains, forests and streams. I learned to whitewater kayak on the Yough, and I can honestly say during that time, I swam most of the river -- it was a pretty steep learning curve! Having that kind of relationship with a river or stream necessitates that you care about its fate -- at least in my opinion. I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to work toward and advocate for the protection of this area.

The Yough Riverkeeper is the public advocate for the Youghiogheny River watershed. We use grassroots efforts to defend against further pollution, to improve water quality and to conserve the natural ecology and character of the region. I believe protecting the Youghiogheny River and its tributaries is critical to improving the environment and economy of our region. I also believe the Yough should remain a 'living river' with safe water for drinking, fishing, paddling, swimming and habitat.

Describe the Youghiogheny River.

The Yough River rises in northern West Virginia before flowing northward 132 miles through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, reaching the Monongahela River just upstream of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Part of the Allegheny Plateau in the Appalachian Mountain chain, the watershed is composed of steep, forested ridges, deep river valleys and countless small headwater streams. The region contains areas of remarkable biodiversity, high-quality waters and large, unfragmented forestland as well as Pennsylvania's highest mountains and deepest river gorge.

The Yough is a major recreational attraction. Much of it is a whitewater river, with several distinct sections featuring rapids ranging from class I through class V. Kayaking, swimming, rafting and fishing are very common, and the Yough draws visitors from around the east coast and the world. The Yough watershed provides habitat for several state and federally threatened and endangered species, and many of our streams feature naturally reproducing populations of brook trout, which are increasingly uncommon. Given these natural amenities, tourism and recreation play a very important role in our local economy.

I don't want to give the impression that everything is roses, however. This part of Pennsylvania has long provided natural resources for the nation and the world, starting with the Industrial Revolution and continuing through today. We clean up the damage from the past even as impacts from new development occur. We have a very real conflict between industrialization -- which could negatively impact our natural environment -- and the tourism- and recreation-based economy that thrives here.  

What are the biggest threats to the Youghiogheny River?

A relatively new and very significant threat we now face is fracking for unconventional natural gas. The Marcellus Shale is a rock formation that underlies approximately two-thirds of Pennsylvania and portions of New York, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia -- and our entire watershed. The shale is generally at a depth of 5,000 to 8,000 feet and is believed to hold trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Until recently the gas was considered too expensive to access, but a new twist on an old drilling technology, called 'horizontal slickwater hydraulic fracturing' or 'fracking' for short, allows for new access to this layer of shale and the natural gas it holds.

Extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation requires drilling, oftentimes vertical and horizontal, along with fracking. After a well is drilled, large amounts of water mixed with sand, chemicals and other fluids are pumped under high pressure into the well to fracture the shale bedrock around the well bore. This process allows the natural gas to flow freely toward the well. Water used ranges from 3 to 7 million gallons per well for each time the well is fractured depending on the depth drilled to and the length of the horizontal extension. This water often comes from surface withdrawals or from public water suppliers; by any standard, it's a very large amount of water. Each well can be fracked multiple times and well pads are seldom home to less than three wells.

Well pads require at least three acres, but typical pads range from 20 to 25 acres depending on the number of wells planned for the site and other required infrastructure. Each well must be connected to a major natural gas transmission line by smaller pipelines known as gathering lines. Compressor stations are constructed along these pipelines to ensure the gas maintains appropriate pressure when transported. Methane is not the only natural gas that comes up in the extraction process and often dehydration and separating units are necessary to isolate methane and get it to market. In areas where other gasses are abundant, cryogenic plants are constructed to ready other gasses (propane, ethane, butane) for sale. Roads must be constructed for site access, impoundments or large numbers of water storage tanks are used to store flowback water -- the toxic liquid that flows back to the surface once fracking is complete. All of these activities require the clearing of additional land.

Development of unconventional gas causes disruption at the landscape level. Some build-out scenarios for Pennsylvania predict up to 60,000 shale gas wells by 2030, with the vast majority being constructed in areas that are currently forested. The clearing of this much forested land will diminish the character of our cold, headwater streams and will certainly have a negative impact on water quality -- not to mention quality of life. The Nature Conservancy predicts over 70 percent of Pennsylvania's remaining brook trout streams will have gas well construction in their watersheds. The consequences of this type of development will significantly alter our landscape and people's enjoyment of it.

I also think it's important to note when people promote natural gas as a bridge fuel, they are not considering the permanence of the infrastructure required to support this industry, the long-term landscape changes that result or the impact of these activities on populated areas.

How do you get people motivated to protect the Youghiogheny River?

The Youghiogheny River watershed is the core of the 'Laurel Highlands' region, an area of western Pennsylvania with a deep natural heritage and exciting outdoor recreational opportunities. Our watershed contains hundreds of square miles of forested land, miles of scenic hiking trails and deep, cold swimming and fishing holes. It's a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, and those folks are very motivated to protect and preserve the watershed because they understand the role it plays in their lives, and in some instances, their livelihoods. We're fortunate to have close relationships with many of the outdoor outfitters in our area. Several have made a significant investment in our work because they see its value in terms of protecting our natural environment and their economic interests. One of our major purposes is to help people make the connection between environmental quality and quality of life, and this is something I think we do very well.

The visible damage caused by past and present land use is also very motivating. When people are on the river and see excessive sedimentation from gas well or pipeline construction, a tributary running orange with mine drainage or runoff from an active coal mine, they call us. We try to engage them in remedying the current situation but also in working toward protection and preservation of the river. The threat of significant natural gas development motivates people to become involved. Ohiopyle State Park is a major draw in our watershed -- it's a state park with over 20,000 acres of protected land, and the Youghiogheny River flows through it. Pennsylvania owns only a small portion of the natural gas rights under the park. The impacts of natural gas development on public lands have been well publicized in other parts of the state, and because of this I think people understand the threat it poses to us here -- so they're interested in becoming involved for that reason. I think a lot of river users and area residents have a real sense of ownership toward the Yough, and this is a very good thing.

What's the oddest thing you've experience during your time as a Waterkeeper?

We were involved in a study of water quality near drinking water intakes several years ago. An intern and I were out on the river in a very remote area taking water samples. We came around a bend in the river and there on shore was a neat little homestead -- with a 12-foot suit of armor statue standing on the riverbank, looking out over the river. No joke. It was very strange.