High Quality Streams – High Quality Fish

The Youghiogheny River Watershed is known for its clean and cool tributaries, fishing, whitewater rafting, and coal mining.  Our industrial minded history paired with our current love for the outdoors brings many to wonder.  Why did we ruin so many of our streams?  Some of you may wonder “What streams are left?”  Every state has a way to classify the health of their waterways.  

Confluence of Beaver and Muddy Creeks. Beaver Creek (left) is murky from sediment.

Creeks and rivers located within the Yough Watershed are classified in several ways.   Many of our smaller cold water streams are home to native trout and our larger warmer rivers have bass and walleye.  Fish are found in waters that they can tolerate.  Temperature is a large variable that is very indicative of the fish you will find there.  There are many other factors, including water quality, land use, or the presence of a dam that can impact the fish assemblages present in any particular waterway.  Classifications of streams take into account many different physical and chemical parameters.  Along with those classifications come regulations and protections in order to preserve water quality, alert the public, or promote recreation.  

The Youghiogheny flows through 3 states: Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.  Each state has its own set of classifications for stream use determined by their respective state-designated environmental agencies.  However, they are all classified depending on what uses the stream. The “Designated Use” is established by the state’s environmental agency based on historical sampling data, modeling, reference stream comparison, and  water quality monitoring.  

For example, Indian Creek is a large tributary of Yough.  Indian Creek has a Designated Use of High Quality Cold Water Fishery (HQ-CWF) from the headwaters of Indian Creek to Melcroft, just downstream of our office.  From there down to its confluence with the Youghiogheny, Indian Creek is a Cold Water Fishery.  This change of classification is due to changes in water quality, macroinvertebrate populations, fish species present, and potentially other “softer” qualifiers.  Indian Creek flows into the Yough and heads towards Connellsville.  

The Yough is a HQ-CWF at this point until it flows over the South Connellsville Dam and past the railyard where the Designated Use turns to a Warm Water Fishery (WWF) at the convergence with Connell Run.  The most obvious differences between the headwaters of Indian Creek (HQ-CWF) and the Yough in Connellsville (WWF) is the size, temperature, the fish species present, and the macroinvertebrates present if you were to compare.  

Dunbar Creek is another tributary of the Yough and happens to flow into South Connellsville as well.  Currently, Dunbar Creek is going through a regulatory change to designate it as Exceptional Value (EV).  If a stream exhibits characteristics of a higher classification, then that waterway should be protected accordingly. This can be accomplished through the “Redesignation Process”.  Exceptional Value streams are the Commonwealth’s most pristine and untouched waterways and are awarded more stringent regulations to protect them.  The process of redesignation can be a very long, repetitive process.  The original petition to redesignate Dunbar was submitted in 1984 by the PA Fish & Boat Commission.  Through various rounds of DEP monitoring, regulatory reviews, and public comment opportunities, Dunbar was redesignated from a HQ-CWF to an Exceptional Value waterway.  This change adds an important level of protection to the watershed. “EV waters are to be protected at their existing quality; water quality shall not be lowered.” per the PA DEP website.   The Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited Chapter has been very involved in protecting the Dunbar Creek Watershed.  CRTU has been doing AMD remediation within the Dunbar Watershed, which most certainly has had a positive impact on the stream.The Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited Chapter made many comments in support of the change.  Senator Stefano agreed with the updated classification and co-signed the Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited letter of support.    

Mountain Watershed recently completed a fish assemblage survey on Indian Creek and many of the tributaries within the watershed.  Western Pennsylvania Conservancy led the survey with several trained biologists.  Native, wild trout populations were prevalent in many of the tributaries including Poplar Run.  Eric Chapman, Director of Aquatic Science at WPC, was impressed with the results and said the 13” one is the largest wild brook trout he has seen in his 15 years of surveying over 1,000 miles of streams!  The presence of large wild producing brook trout is a great indicator of water quality and regularly used in stream classification / redesignation.  We have submitted these results to the PA Fish & Boat Commission.  

PA Fish & Boat have their own classification of streams solely based on the type of fish including if the waterway is stocked, if it has native and wild producing trout, and if the stream can support recreational fishing.  A portion of Poplar Run is now on a list of streams being considered for wild trout designation, due to the prevalence of native brook trout .  PA Fish & Boat will conduct a follow up survey to verify the results of our study.  Depending on the results of their survey, Poplar Run could be classified as a Class A Wild Trout stream.  This classification is very important for a stream to attain.   The addition of any stream to Fish & Boat’s Class A list automatically adds that waterway to a bundle of streams that will potentially be redesignated.  The DEP would perform their own survey and make their own determination.   The process of redesignation involves many levels of oversight and public comment periods and can be highly contentious when addressing stakeholder input.    

Poplar Run has been a focus of our conservation work for many years.  A large tributary of Poplar Run is Newmyer Run.  Newmyer Run is heavily impacted by AMD discharges, highly toxic, and void of any fish or macroinvertebrate life.  The origin of the Newmyer is a discharge called Rondell. Historically, the Rondell discharge has extremely low pH and high Aluminum levels.  Below the convergence with Newmyer Run, Poplar Run is heavily impacted as well.  Our water quality monitoring, macroinvertebrate sampling, and fish surveys tell us that Newmyer Run impairs the quality of Poplar Run so much that the communities of fish that use the waterway are completely different than upstream portions of Poplar Run.  Brook trout are not tolerant of streams with low pH and are extremely intolerant of high aluminum levels.  This portion of Poplar Run is on DEP’s 303d List of Impaired Waters.  The list is essentially a compilation of waterways that do not meet their “Designated Use”.  The List of Impaired Waters will describe the source and contaminant causing the impairment.  Newmyer is impaired due to the high levels of “Metals” and the source is “Acid Mine Drainage”.  We are working with several partners on a prototype water treatment system for the Rondell discharge.  Preliminary testing has shown huge improvements to water quality after the treatment process.  Look for an update from MWA soon about that project.  

Impaired streams are very common in our area.  Mining has and continues to impact water quality in our region.  Meadow Run is known for fishing and sliding down the natural waterslides.  Laurel Run originates within Ohiopyle State Park near Sugarloaf Knob.  Laurel Run flows into Meadow Run and, similarly, has a designated use of HQ-CWF.  The stream flows past a place known to locals as the Clay Mines or Potato Ridge, which was active between 1959 to 1980..   From the mine down to Meadow Run, Laurel is void of the aquatic life found in the untouched sections.  Laurel Run is considered impaired due to mining and no longer supports the designated use of HQ-CWF.  The DEP doesn’t want impaired streams.  A TMDL is then made for the stream, like one made for Laurel Run.  A Total Maximum Daily Load is basically a limit on the amount of pollution that can enter a waterway.  The stream can recover from the impacts and discharges can be managed in order to see improvements of the impaired waterway.  

NPDES permit applications and renewals are heavily reviewed by the DEP for projects within watersheds that have TMDLs, in order to adhere to the established Waste Load Allocations.  MWA and members appealed the renewal of the Potato Ridge Mine NPDES permit because it allowed levels of pollutants that would make the Laurel Run TMDL unobtainable.  This led to years of litigation and continued pressure by MWA staff to force the DEP to establish more stringent limitations on the NPDES permit.  

Potato Ridge Highlight: The Potato Ridge Site and surrounding area was heavily mined for several resources including coal, clay for bricks, and aluminum.  The facilities are no longer in operation and the operator, Kaiser Aluminum, is now bankrupt.  The site is not considered abandoned, due it being active post 1977.  The treatment operations need to continue at the site.  Upon bankruptcy, a Postmining Treatment Trust Consent Order and Agreement required the transfer of funds and property at the site from Kaiser to the Ohiopyle Mines Treatment Systems Trust Account (Ohiopyle Trust). This fund is managed by Clean Streams Foundation, who operates the treatment system and several others in our area.  Within the past three years, MWA was alerted that the Ohiopyle Trust was nearly out of funding for supplies, maintenance, and treatment operations costs.  We were told that treatment could continue for three months before funds were depleted.  A fortunate Growing Greener Grant was awarded to temporarily fund continued operations.  

Our area is full of clean, trout producing streams.  Protecting them is key to the survival of our area’s uniqueness and heritage.  Many organizations take watershed monitoring and assessment into their own hands.  By knowing which streams need preserving and which streams need repairing, we can collectively focus our efforts to achieve healthy streams in our area.  Laurel Run would be an amazing trout stream if not the ongoing impacts from mineral extraction.  Laurel Run is not alone.  Region wide conservation and advocacy efforts are taking place to clean up these streams.  However, the examples of Poplar Run and Laurel Run and the lengthy and costly efforts to retain healthy streams, should be a warning.  The amount of energy and resources needed to repair an impaired stream may be futile.