The Case of the Muddy Water: Using Authentic Data to Investigate Impacts of Hydrofracturing

Sharon Dykhoff, Washington D.C. Metro Area - ‎Science Teacher at Dominion Christian School - ‎Dominion Christian School, Susan Brantley, The Pennsylvania State University, Liza Brazil, Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc.


The objective of this lesson is to introduce the potential impacts of natural gas extraction through data analysis. First, students will be given an introduction to the importance of topography when studying surface and groundwater. After enough background information is provided, Students will graph and analyze water quality data as they investigate the cause of an actual point source contamination incident in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. The students will use the web-based computer application HydroClient to access data from the Shale Network. The Shale Network is a project which helps scientists and citizens publish data about water resources that may be impacted by shale gas drilling. After analyzing the data and drawing conclusions, the students will use records from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to find out if the drilling company was found to be at fault.

Intended Audience

This unit is intended for introductory level undergraduate students in hydrology, environmental sciences, geology, and earth sciences.

Conceptual Learning Outcomes

  • Students are introduced to the potential impacts of natural gas extraction on water resources
  • Students learn about topography and water sources in Pennsylvania
  • Students develop reasoning and data analysis skills

Practical Learning Outcomes

  • Students use HydroClient to discover, download, and view data
  • Students answer questions using the Larry's Creek Watershed Profile Fact Sheet from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission
  • Students answer questions about and graph turbidity and precipitation

Supporting Reference Documents and Files

Larry's Creek Watershed Profile needed for step 1: Understanding Larry's Creek Watershed


October 25, 2011 was a fine day to take off from work early and go fishing in Larry's Creek. It was 64 degrees in the afternoon with clear, blue Pennsylvania skies. But the talk around the counter at Speedy's Convenience Store in Salladasburg was that something was wrong with the water. Larry's Creek, one of Pennsylvania's "High Quality Cold Water Fisheries," is usually a great place to go bass fishing, but a few days earlier, the creek's clear, cold mountain water had turned a muddy brown color. Workers at the Jersey Shore Water Filtration Plant on Larry's Creek were the first to notice the sudden increase in turbidity as the muddy water spilled over the dam.


Deep below the sandstone cobbles of the streambed lies the methane-rich Marcellus shale. Upstream from the dam, gas companies were busy drilling wells to fracture and drive the natural gas out of the rock. "Fracking" uses a lot of water, but removing or discharging water into the pristine waters of Larry's Creek is not permitted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Some members of the Larry's Creek Watershed Association had heard rumors that a gas drilling accident had occurred upstream. The talk among the Association members was that a pipeline leak spilled drilling mud into the water while the gas company was installing a pipeline under the creek. However, sometimes the creek would turn muddy after a hard rainstorm, especially with all the construction in the area. So what was responsible for so much mud in the water? A pipeline leak? Or sediment runoff from a rainstorm?
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission maintains a remote water monitoring station on Larry's Creek. The station continuously measures and reports temperature, pH, conductance, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity. Turbidity and precipitation data, available in the HydroClient database, will help you solve the mystery of the muddy water.

Steps within this lesson