Land swap marks latest step to improve Youghiogheny River watershed by Deborah Weisberg

Land swap marks latest step to improve Youghiogheny River watershed by Deborah Weisberg

Land swap marks latest step to improve Youghiogheny River watershed by Deborah Weisberg

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A land swap has paved the way for the restoration of Morgan Run, a Youghiogheny River tributary so degraded by mine drainage it hasn't sustained trout in decades.

The public-private trade is part of a larger effort by Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited -- and a bevy of environmental partners -- to sweeten the southwestern slope of the Yough River watershed, a region rife with coal mines and the effects of acid rain but nevertheless a popular destination for local anglers.

At its recent fall meeting, the Pennsylvania Game Commission agreed to donate a small parcel in State Game Land 51 in Dunbar Township to Chestnut Ridge TU, which, in turn, will convey it to a private landowner.

In exchange, the landowner will allow the group to build a mine drainage treatment system on another part of his property.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection facilitated the arrangement by giving the Game Commission 68 acres in Reade Township, Cambria County, which will expand State Game Land 158.

"We've done these kinds of exchanges before," said Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser. "The bottom line is we gain an additional parcel and the treatment plant will have a positive impact on ...all wildlife."

The $507,000 Morgan Run project will improve the 5-mile, fast-moving stream that originates in Ohiopyle State Park, flows through a gorge, and empties into the middle Yough at South Connellsville.

It also brings to nearly $1 million -- mostly in Growing Greener grants -- the amount Chestnut Ridge has invested so far in transforming formerly lifeless waterways.

The work has earned the group the 2007 Edward J. Urbas Award for Best Pennsylvania Chapter and the 2006 prestigious Silver Trout award from Trout Unlimited, a coldwater fisheries organization based in Washington, D.C.

Although the chapter has added Laurel Hill Run and Dunbar Creek to its list of emerging endeavors, the chapter's most notable success to date is the restoration of Glade Run -- a wide, forested stream that intersects Dunbar Creek at its headwaters on the Chestnut Ridge plateau.

Once among the most acidified streams in the state, Glade Run was a perfect candidate for major doses of limestone sand. In 1998, with a $5,000 state grant, the TU chapter dumped hundreds of tons in the 12-square mile Glade Run watershed that also includes Big Piney and Little Piney runs.

"It's a band-aid, but we saw improvements immediately, to the point where in two, three years, we had naturally reproducing brook trout," said Tom Shetterly, the chapter's natural resources manager and a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission board member.

The brookies were planted in 1999 through 2001 by California University of Pennsylvania biologist Bill Kimmel and his students, who used wild and stocked fish from nearby Little Dunbar Creek, the Yough Area Fisherman's Association and the Chestnut Ridge chapter's nursery, run in conjunction with the Fish Commission on the Yough.

"Before sand treatment, the last known fish were in the 1960s," said Rob Ryder, a DEP water pollution biologist who was one of Kimmel's graduate students. "We began documenting natural reproduction in August 2001. We also saw increased diversity and abundance of aquatic insects, including acid-sensitive mayflies."

That same year, Chestnut Ridge TU built a state-funded anoxic limestone drain to further neutralize flow and augment, but not replace, regular applications of alkaline sand.

"There've been six doses over the past eight years, and water quality keeps improving with each one," said Ryder. "They'll have to continue the doses. Acidification remediation is about constant stewardship. Otherwise, you lose what you've gained."

The turnaround of Glade Run also has had a marked impact on Dunbar Creek downstream, where Green Drakes have been noted in recent years, along with mottled sculpins, creek chubs and blacknose dace not seen in at least two decades. The number of brook trout is up, too.

"It's a good sign that the pH of the water is improving," said Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission habitat biologist Gary Smith. "The dace and chubs, in particular, are less acid tolerant minnow species."

Plans are now underway to improve Dunbar's habitat from the edge of State Game Land 51 to the town of Dunbar.

A $51,000 state grant is being used to help design a more natural flowing stream that would include reestablishing cover on top of a North Fayette Township Water Authority pipe and stabilizing the banks with buffering vegetation.

A dam once used for flood control in logging and mining days also might be removed to enhance fish movement.

Chestnut Ridge TU also is moving ahead with flow studies on Laurel Hill Creek, where current and projected development are taxing both surface water and groundwater storage.

A $300,000 state-federal study of the impact of nearby ski resorts, homes and industry will be used to develop a water resources plan for the creek and surrounding community, said U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Dan Galeone. "Preliminary data shows Laurel Hill is stressed."

Less certain are plans for Jonathan Run at Ohiopyle State Park. Although the TU chapter paid for the design of a limestone treatment facility on the stream, which was removed from the stocking list in 1990, DEP and Purco Coal, which agreed to fund the project, are locked in a dispute over long-term maintenance responsibilities.

"When you look at one tributary or one project, it might not seem to have much impact on the main stem of a river like the Yough," said the Fish Commission's Gary Smith. "But add them all up together and you see the bigger benefit."