Tracking potential impacts of Marcellus Shale drilling activity on water quality will be the focus of a $750,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation, according to Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), which is to lead the collaboration.

The Marcellus Shale Research Network is to consolidate and routinely update water data being collected by watershed groups, government agencies, industry stakeholders and universities as a searchable database. The project also would facilitate and train additional community groups in how to organize, collect and interpret water data.

The Marcellus Shale's rapid development has prompted interest in collecting and documenting pre-drilling surface water quality, and more than 700 volunteers are engaged in that activity, according to Penn State. However, county and state agencies also are tracking surface water data as are several colleges and universities.

"Significant data collection is occurring throughout the Marcellus Shale region, but synthesis of that data into useful knowledge is needed," said Penn State's Susan Brantley, principal investigator and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. "Our database will not only establish background concentrations but enable assessment of impacts across the Marcellus Shale extraction region."

The interplay between scientists and community watershed groups -- community members without formal scientific training -- also will be examined in data collection and knowledge generation, the university said. Penn State researcher Kathy Brasier is leading the effort to study how citizen groups have been organizing regarding shale activity.

Collaborators include researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Bucknell University, as well as Dickinson College, which has been training community groups to organize, collect and interpret water data through its Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring group. The Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Sciences Inc. is developing the database.

The Marcellus Shale Research Network is to not only identifying entities collecting water data but also plans to create a sustainable network among those groups. Coordinating these efforts could lead to more extensive sampling and enhance development of long-term data records, both of which will aid in tracking environmental monitoring, the university said.

Given human impacts, the need for such networks is critical, said Brantley.

"This network will lay the groundwork for a monitoring approach that can track impacts of Marcellus Shale development across multiple ecological, social and economic attributes of the region -- and provide a model for other regions," Brantley added.

Of particular interest are constituents regulated by the state and often associated with Marcellus Shale development including total dissolved solids, chlorides, barium and strontium, said research team member David Yoxtheimer, extension associate with the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research.

In addition to geochemical and hydrological data, the research network also will explore the role of community watershed organizations in building scientific understanding and knowledge for citizen scientists about the impacts of Marcellus Shale.