Community watershed groups offer essential benefits to our waterways, but need fresh volunteers, support
Armed with a $5,000 startup grant from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services and a small group of volunteers, the Chillisquaque Limestone Watershed Association formed in Montour County and began meetings in early 2000 with a lengthy list of issues to address.
“The biggest concerns in our district are agricultural like streambank erosion and manure storage along with litter and trash dumps,” said Tom Benfer, the association’s president since its inception. “I said we should start work on Limestone Run first because I figured we could make improvements rapidly. Well, ‘rapidly’ took 20 years.”
The association’s efforts on Limestone Run, however, have exceeded even Benfer’s optimistic expectations.
‘An impressive force’
Throughout the 11,000-square-mile watershed served by the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, numerous smaller watershed groups, associations, alliances and other nonprofits provide necessary manpower and funding to address waterway issues.
“Community watershed organizations are an impressive force on the landscape of Pennsylvania,” said Tali MacArthur, Program Manager for Watershed Outreach for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) and Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers (POWR). “They are hard at work replanting streamside forests, stabilizing eroding streambanks, picking up litter in and along waterways and educating local citizens about the value of clean water.”
The Buffalo Valley Watershed Alliance formed in 2002 with an immediate focus on treating Buffalo Creek’s headwaters in Union County, which were impaired by acid rain.
“It is such a pristine area and it was easy to question how it was impaired, but it was due to decades of acid rain caused by industrial issues and other problems west of the area which lowered the pH to around 4.0 for many years,” Staebler said. “Our first major project was to create an acid remediation site consisting of two limestone ponds. It was more than a $300,000 project funded by grants out of Growing Greener and the Foundation for PA Watersheds. It took five years to get a working system up and running, going live in September of 2009.”
The work paid off fairly quickly after that.
“It went from a pH of 4.0 to a more normal 7.0,” said Staebler. “It can take time for life to return to areas like that. Within five or six years, fish such as trout began to show up where they hadn’t been for decades.”
The Moshannon Creek, in the farther western reaches of our greater watershed (Clearfield/Centre counties), has been drastically impaired by acid mine drainage (AMD) issues, being dubbed at one point by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission’s Tom Clark as “the single biggest source of acidity and metals in the West Branch of the Susquehanna.”
In 2020, Eric Skrivseth and Eric Rosengrant joined with some other partners to form the Moshannon Creek Watershed Association and wasted no time in getting to work.
“The challenge on the Moshannon is that there are a lot of places where the (AMD) issue exists – there are dozens of places significant for mine info,” said Skrivseth. “However, if you pick the right ones and make improvements there, it can make a real change and you can add miles of healthy water back to the Moshannon watershed.”
The group quickly took over maintenance of six treatment systems already in place.
“They had been abandoned for a decade or more,” said Rosengrant. “Even with passive systems like these, you have to do regular maintenance, such as stirring the limestone, removing leaves, cutting trees, repairing plumbing and other tasks. We formed monthly work parties – sometimes we’d have two or three people, other times a dozen. Out of the six systems, three are now operating as they should and we are focused on getting the funds and heavy equipment to get the rest back online.”
The Catawissa Creek, which empties into the North Branch of the Susquehanna in Columbia County, is also impaired by AMD issues tied to five mine drainage outflows upstream.
“We have a couple of passive treatment systems that are improving water quality,” said Ed Wytovich, president of the Catawissa Creek Restoration Association (CCRA). “The biggest remaining portion of mine drainage is from the Audenried tunnel, and things are moving in the right direction once land ownership issues are handled. Once this treatment system is up and running, it will clean up approximately 40 miles of stream along one of the most beautiful messed up creeks in the state.”
The CCRA is also working to develop better access for the public to the Catawissa Creek.
“Right now, the majority of the Catawissa is located on private property,” said Wytovich. “We want to improve public access for fishing, perhaps kayaking, bird watching and other activities.”
Watershed groups also help connect local landowners with programming to improve stream health.
“I have gone around with the watershed specialist in Montour County knocking on doors of farms that we felt needed streambank restoration or manure storage assistance,” said Benfer. “Once we got a few done, we didn’t have to do as much canvassing because farmers would start telling others of the benefits they had received thanks to this programming.
The Buffalo Valley Watershed Association had similar results, according to Staebler.
“Farmers along certain stretches are mostly Old Order (Amish). Two of our group’s managers took these farmers down to projects along Turtle Creek, which has been a showcase for stream remediation success,” he said. “They talked with farmers down there and how these projects not only helped the stream, but the overall operation of the farms. Now, there is a big section of that tributary that has tree plantings, fences and designated cattle crossings.”
Trash and litter pickup events are also common for many watershed groups, including the Chillisquaque Limestone Watershed Association.
“Through the fall of 2020, our group has pulled 27.865 tons of trash out of our streams and tire turn-in events have taken in 6,061 tires which isn’t even included in the nearly 28 tons of trash we’ve pulled,” said Benfer. “Of course, there is a cost to this. During our first-ever cleanup, we picked up 180 tires and 4.5 tons of trash and had to spend $1,452 in disposal fees.”
‘A little long in the tooth’
To continue making a real impact along our community streams, watershed groups need help, not only with volunteers to do the work, but also funds to support these efforts.
“We just can’t do this work without people getting involved, and we have been very fortunate over the years to have good support despite being such a small watershed group,” said Benfer. “Unfortunately, some of our more active members are no longer able to help due to age and health issues.”
Wytovich echoed that sentiment when talking about the Catawissa Creek: “Many of us are getting a little long in the tooth, and we could use some new blood to help reinvigorate things.”
Numerous watershed groups have dried up due to lack of helpers and financial support, while others are barely holding on.
“Because we have no membership at the moment, we have made it a requirement that everyone on borough (Hop Bottom) council is also a member of the watershed association,” said Janice Webster, of the Martin’s Creek Watershed Association in Susquehanna County. “Part of our borough council agenda at each meeting is devoted to the watershed needs, which include flood concerns, creek bank erosion and the sedimentation that goes with that.”
Serving on a watershed association can give a person – and his/her community – a better voice in making real change, according to Wytovich.
“Publicly, as far as the news is concerned, but also to politicians at the township, state and even federal levels,” he said. “A clean watershed brings pride to people, and more of a reason to band together and keep it clean. Being a part of an effort like this can be very rewarding for people of all ages.”
“These volunteer organizations need the support of people who are looking to be a part of these successes,” added MacArthur. “Find a watershed association near you and see how you can get involved to help restore and protect your local waterways ensure clean water for all.”
In an effort to help support and reinvigorate local watershed groups, the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association has developed a special “Watershed Opportunities” page, with an updated list of active watershed groups, a place to share your association’s successes and other resources: www.middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org/watershed-opportunities.html
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.