Urban Development, Highways, and Agriculture Impact Water Quality
The nineteenth century's low population densities, dirt roads and agricultural landscape have given way to higher densities, paved roads, and more widespread commerce and industry. Yet even today, less than two percent of the watershed is classified as industrial, commercial, residential, or paved road. But development has brought an increase in impermeable surfaces, principally roads, parking lots and rooftops. Runoff travels over impermeable surfaces and into streams and rivers more quickly than when it falls on vegetated surfaces. While the storm runoff systems mandated in more densely settled areas currently compensate for increased impermeability, flooding due to future development in the watershed is a real possibility. Flood risk can be reduced by adequate zoning regulations and best management practices on a county-wide level.

About one quarter of the watershed is agricultural—fields and pasture, or cleared land no longer being farmed—even though most residents earn a living from urban-based occupations. As was true a century ago, poor agricultural practices—allowing livestock to enter a stream to drink, poor nutrient (animal waste) management practices and failing to contour plow—increase silting and stream sediment load. Many farms today employ herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, unknown a century ago but contributors to water pollution today. Two factors are helping to mitigate agriculturally-induced water pollution problems. The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Conservation District agricultural agents are active in disseminating and promoting Best Management Practices that benefit both farmers (more efficient use of these products is less costly) and the environment. And, because we now know more about how land use practices upstream can adversely impact downstream rivers and vital estuaries, this understanding is gradually being reflected in laws that govern discharges from various sources, including agriculture.

The Somerset County Conservation District's 2008 Stonycreek River Watershed Reassessment concluded that, even as abandoned mine-related problems had somewhat abated in the parts of the Stonycreek system, increased problems of water quality attributable to agriculture and transportation were on the rise. DEP's "acceptable pollution loads" for a stream are set "at the level of a watershed largely unaffected by human induced impacts." DEP data released in early 2013 on Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) indicate that nutrient loads from fertilizers exceed TMDL standards in Wells Creek and the upper reaches of the Stonycreek River, while sediment and suspended solids exceed TMDL standards throughout most of the Stonycreek watershed. Although agriculture is contributing to impaired stream quality in the Stonycreek watershed, metals and low pH, which are symptomatic of coal mining (or, in the case of pH, also due in part to acid precipitation from coal-fired power plants to the west) are more serious problems in most of the watershed's streams.


To learn a great deal more about water quality assessment in the Stonycreek watershed, see Amanda Deal, Eric Null and Len Lichvar, The Stonycreek River Watershed Reassessment, Somerset Conservation District, 2008. To download this document from the Somerset Conservation District, click here.

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