Looking back over the past four decades, there are number of reasons for optimism about the future of water quality in the Stonycreek watershed.
The causes of impaired water quality are now well documented, and it is likely that most AMD sites have been identified. The science of AMD treatment has advanced, with both active and passive treatment system technologies available, the choices depending upon individual site conditions. Current environmental standards for mining, post-mining land reclamation and containment of pollutants are far more rigorous, and penalties for non-compliance are more severe, reducing (but not eliminating) the likelihood of new AMD sources or AML sites being created. If a previously mined area is reopened for coal extraction, AML remediation or AMD abatement is worked into the project as a part of DEP's permitting requirements, thus cleaning up that problem site without the use of public funds. Some local waste coal piles have been reduced or removed because new coal sorting technologies have made them worth reclaiming (although other sites remain more intractable because of low quality or accessibility issues).
More attention is being paid to the impact that agriculture, urban development and road maintenance have on water quality, as these activities have the greatest potential for future harm to local waterways. The Somerset and Cambria County Conservation Districts, along with DEP and its Bureau of Conservation and Restoration, have been actively addressing the area's waterway issues. Non-profit watershed groups, sportsmen's organizations, land trusts and alliances formed two decades ago are still vital. Watershed staff and the volunteers who collect stream data are dedicated and conscientious, providing data essential to water quality monitoring and AMD abatement.
In 1999, the formation of the Cambria Somerset Authority (CSA) facilitated public purchase of the Manufacturers Water Company's 800 acre Quemahoning Reservoir, nearly 2,400 acres of adjacent lands, and Border Dam on the Stonycreek River. These acquisitions have enabled a local public entity to address water supply and water quality issues, create new and very much needed public recreational facilities, and promote economic opportunities in ways not previously possible in the watershed.
Canoeing, white water kayaking, and rafting have grown in popularity as sections of the Stonycreek River have improved. The Benscreek Canoe Club has, with support from many other non-profit organizations and governmental agencies and authorities, transformed a section of the Stonycreek River into a white water park that is the first in Pennsylvania and one of only two in the Northeast. Local media has given good coverage to a succession of watershed improvement and awareness projects, helping to keep public attention focused on water quality issues and the progress being made.
But there are still serious hurtles to overcome. AMD/AML remediation is costly. As an example, construction costs for six AMD passive treatment systems at Oven Run sites A-F in the late 1990s cost over $3 million. Federal and state funding is limited, and local projects must compete with other deserving proposals in Pennsylvania and beyond. Active treatment systems (e.g. lime dosing) require ongoing attention and incur annual costs. Even passive treatment systems require periodic maintenance or replacement, also at a cost. Because these systems only treat AMD, but do not eliminate it, they continue to be an expense. Perhaps the greatest threat to local streams is the reversal of the water quality accomplishments already achieved, due to the absence of dedicated funding that covers their ongoing operation and maintenance.
Sometimes treatment systems don't work as well as expected. AMD remediation is incremental and may appear unbearably slow. From start to finish, gathering the necessary data, developing a proposal, acquiring landowner agreements, securing funding, and implementing a plan to treat just one discharge typically takes years. Within this watershed, AMD and AML sites are numerous and widely distributed. For all these reasons, the Stonycreek River and its tributaries can't be restored in one grand gesture.
But over time, the effects of multiple remediation projects are cumulative. Clean up enough discharges and incremental progress is apparent: downstream waters become marginally better with each new AMD discharge that is laid to rest. Prioritizing projects is important and must be supported by data (although politics may play a role, as well). If possible, it's generally best to clean up the worst discharges first, and have a top-down approach (working from the headwaters down to the mouth). Demonstrating the nature and extent of the problem requires macroinvertebrate, fish and physical habitat studies as well as several years of laboratory-verified water-chemistry data, so that the remediation proposal has a sound, scientific basis and the best likelihood of success. Maintaining funding commitments by federal and state legislative bodies is crucial, as is the ongoing involvement of state and local government, watershed groups, and other environmentally-focused organizations, which must work cooperatively with one another.
Recently introduced as well as yet unanticipated forms of resource extraction (the rapid growth of hydraulic fracturing of shale formations for natural gas is a case in point) represent potential threats to both surface water and underground water sources, of currently unknown magnitude. Agriculture constitutes a growing source of stream degradation locally, but it is also a more tractable problem than AMD. Urban uses and highways pose potential threats to water quality but these can be prevented by zoning ordinances and planning.
In 2012, the Stonycreek River was designated Pennsylvania's "River of the Year." This was both a tribute to the improvements that have occurred in the river and its tributaries, and encouragement to local organizations to continue their watershed restoration efforts. As the River of the Year designation signifies, the Stonycreek watershed is on a trajectory toward recovery. The adverse impact of past coal mining needs to be addressed, discharge by discharge, and AML site by AML site, and present-day operations need to be monitored. The good news is that more stream segments are running cleaner than they have since at least the mid-twentieth century.
Clean streams and a healthy watershed don't just happen. They require continued commitment on the part of local watershed groups and their volunteers, along with citizens, governmental organizations and decision makers at all levels. The rewards of AML and AMD cleanup in the Stonycreek watershed have been great, as measured through improved aquatic habitat and enhanced aesthetic, scenic and recreational values. They contribute to the "quality of life" in this area. We don't do this just for the fish or the deer?we also do this for ourselves, and for future generations.
Back to Top