As new developments dot the Centre County landscape, a range of groups are working to protect a vital natural resource: Our watershed
When the rain falls in Centre County, it affects everyone in ways we may not always think about. It falls on the mountaintops and collects in the streams as they flow down the mountain to our many rivers. It falls on our many farms and gives life to the fields that grow our food. It drops from the sky and splatters off the umbrellas of Penn State students as they walk to class. The rain soaks the construction workers who continue to build State College upward and it falls on the fishermen wading in our abundant streams.
Some of the rainwater evaporates back into the sky, but much of it is trickles down into our groundwater aquifers and gets used as a resource for us all. From Slab Cabin Run to Spring Creek and beyond, some of it flows until it meets a bigger stream, eventually collecting in the diverse and bountiful Chesapeake Bay before reaching the ocean.
The watershed is one of our most important natural resources and there are numerous groups working to protect it and keep it viable. From every new development to every highway that gets built, this community is keeping an eye on where the water flows. And in every stream, creek, and river, people are monitoring our water and working to repair damage that has been done.
Igniting a fire
Back the late 1970s, developers wanted to construct a shopping mall on farmland that is now Tom Tudek Memorial Park. A group of people got together to voice concerns about how the development would affect the watershed and the community. Barbara Fisher and Jim McClure got motivated. They started attending township meetings and making sure that the community’s voice was heard. This led to the start of ClearWater Conservancy.
“It takes, sometimes, an issue to start igniting a fire or an effort to try and address things and make things better,” says Fisher. The neighborhood rallied, there were court hearings, and ultimately Fisher felt like the community’s voice was heard.
“In the end, some of the land was developed, but most of it became this marvelous park,” says Fisher. “As a result, it inspired us to realize that something more concrete needed to be developed in the community, as well as to process wise use of the land and how it affects the environment and the watershed.”
This is how ClearWater came to be, as the group set up a land trust with the late McClure as its first president and more than 20 other founding members. Fisher, a former teacher, is still a force with which to be reckoned, with detailed notes and a wealth of information about the watershed.
That effort ignited a fire that continues to grow as the community remains engaged in watershed protection and other environmental issues.
When Nestlé Waters looked into building a water bottling plant in Spring Township in 2018, the community rallied to make sure that it was a good deal for all involved. Nestlé Waters eventually dropped that plan. An upcoming change to the zoning ordinance in Benner Township that looks to encourage more development has been questioned by community members about its environmental implications, including its impact on Spring Creek. And if you drove around State College from 2015 through 2018, it was hard to miss signs saying “No Toll on Our Watershed” in response to a land development planned along Whitehall Road called The Cottages. The Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition lead protests on the site to try to stop the development of the land that once belonged to Penn State, near Slab Cabin Run and the State College drinking water aquifer. The Cottages development was eventually started after a long legal battle with nearby landowners.
For ClearWater, other opportunities presented themselves as ways to protect the watershed.
“I don’t think that we can spend time worrying about what has been lost,” says ClearWater Conservancy executive director Deborah Nardone.
ClearWater has partnered with Penn State to conserve the 365 acres that sit adjacent to the development with a vision of connecting the community to forest land through the Musser’s Gap Greenway. Nardone says she is impressed by Penn State president Eric Baron’s dream of providing that connection and is glad to be partnered on the project.
The Centre Region is growing by a family a day, with an average of three-and-a-half new people moving here every day, says Nardone.
“We are not only growing up with all the high-rises you see downtown, but we are growing out. So, rural communities, places where people recreate, places that provide us drinking water and a healthy trout fishery, are all starting to decline because of the increased pressure of development,” she says. “So, we have to take a look at what are the best places that are in need of protection as we grow, and how we protect the integrity of what we have, which is clean drinking water, trout-filled waters, forested ridge tops; they all provide a lot to our everyday way of life. We can’t grow and not find ways to make sure those places are protected.”
ClearWater recently introduced the “Compass,” its strategic vision to connect, protect, restore, and steward. Through conservation of land such as Musser’s Gap Greenway, the Scotia Barrens, and Meyer Dairy, the conservancy is working to keep and restore natural environments that are important for the watershed, as well as easements that allow stream restoration work.
“What happens above ground affects what is underground,” says Nardone, and what is underground is our drinking water, which comes from underground aquifers.
By connecting people with nature, ClearWater is working to open people’s eyes.
“It is one thing for us to live here and work here and go to school here. It’s another thing to really appreciate what is around us,” says Nardone.
ClearWater launched Centred Outdoors a couple of years back, providing an opportunity for people to get out and see what is so wonderful about the outdoor space that they are working to conserve. The program has focused on the summer months, but now is expanding to include spring and fall activities as well.
“It’s to help you feel comfortable and fall in love with the places that are in your backyard that you might not know are there,” says Nardone. “We want being outside to be a
regular routine for people ... and we hope that people see what it took to preserve these areas and why they were preserved and maybe they will become a champion for other open spaces.”
Every April, ClearWater celebrates Earth Day with Watershed Cleanup Day. More than 500 volunteers work for hours to clear and properly dispose of trash from roadsides, parks, streams, and sinkholes. Volunteers cleared more than 17.73 tons of trash in 2018; more than 6.195 million pounds of trash have been cleared since 1997.
ClearWater also works with property owners to improve stream riparian areas, the zone of transition between land and water. A healthy riparian area is vegetated with appropriate native plants and is essential for stream health and water quality.
When people live or farm close to streams, vegetation in riparian areas is commonly disturbed or removed, which begins to unravel the delicate balance that once existed between soil, water, plants, and animals. Stream banks quickly become destabilized, streams become silted and warm, invasive plant species begin to colonize, and riparian-dependent wildlife disappears.
The goal of ClearWater’s Riparian Conservation Program is to improve stream quality in central Pennsylvania through the program’s four areas of focus: stream assessment, stewardship, restoration, and protection. The program educates streamside landowners on the role of vegetated buffers, restores streamside buffers with native trees and shrubs, and permanently protects riparian areas through conservation easements.
Armed with water test kits, friendship, and maybe some hip waders, an intrepid group of older citizens from the Centre County Pennsylvania Senior Environmental Corps, part of the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program, go out weekly to monitor 13 streams in the area through a chemical analysis.
Once in the spring and once in the fall, the teams also do a macro invertebrate survey as well, checking crawfish, mayfly larva, and worms, says president Lou Mayer. Basically, they monitor all the things that indicate the health of streams and post the data at ccpasec. org. And while they do not monitor Spring Creek – the Spring Creek Watershed Association and Clearwater Conservancy do that – Mayer says they monitor many of the tributaries that run into Spring Creek, as well as other watersheds such as the Penn Creek Watershed and Bald Eagle Creek Watershed.
The group started collecting data in 2002.
Mayer says the teams develop close relationships through their time out on the streams, and they are always glad to find new members. Team members don’t have to be retired, but he says most are because the work is typically done during the day.
Mayer says there have been some instances where team members have noticed streams with numbers that were out of whack because of snow runoff from farms or other issues, but by and large the waterways have remained pretty healthy, thanks to all the work of groups like ClearWater through the years.
There is an old saying that unpleasant stuff flows
downstream (it’s actually a little harsher than that, but hopefully the meaning is clear). It is especially true on farmland, as livestock too close to streams can cause water pollution, but the Centre County Conservation District is working with farmers to help ease some of the pollution.
Recently, the CCCD received a $1.6 million grant to work on more of these areas, providing funding to implement stream restoration and construct riparian buffers at 10 sites in the county. The county will use the money for four stream stabilization projects and six agriculture best management practice projects, says John Wataha, agricultural conservation tech for Centre County.
Wataha says the state Department of Environmental Protection has done a lot of work to revitalize the Chesapeake Bay and restore its biodiversity, and the stream restoration projects help with that.
The money for the project, from a 2019 Growing Greener grant through the DEP, will be used to establish 23.4 acres of forest buffers and protect 8,000 linear feet of stream bank.
These improvements will reduce pollution into the Susquehanna Watershed, eliminating an estimated 418 tons of sediment and more than 13,000 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution annually. Planting trees and creating other buffers between the livestock and the waterways will help reduce runoff that negatively impacts streams. The work will provide better water quality for Centre County and downriver as well.
“We all have to do our part,” says Wataha.
Spring Creek is one of the most highly regarded trout fishing streams in the country. People come from all over to fish this stream and its surrounding tributaries.
“Fishermen around the country know this region for its wonderful trout streams; it is really a special place,” says Lynn Mitchell, president of the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Head down to Fisherman’s Paradise in Bellefonte just about any time of the year and you will see fly fishermen wading in the stream, casting rods in hopes of making the catch of a lifetime. What makes it special is the water temperature and the diversity of the life that lives in these streams, and because people have worked to keep it that way.
According to a 2015 report by the Spring Creek Water Monitoring Project, which promotes the sustainable management of surface water and groundwater resources in Spring Creek, approximately 85 percent of Spring Creek’s annual average flow is comprised of groundwater that feeds into the stream via springs. When there is no rainfall or snowmelt, 100 percent of the water in our streams comes from groundwater. This groundwater is of high quality and provides a temperature for an aquatic habitat that is ideal for trout and a water flow that is ideal for kayaking and canoeing in some downstream locations, even during a drought. (In 2016, winter stream temperatures ranged from near freezing to 48 degrees and summer temperatures ranged between 55 and 76 degrees.)
Trout Unlimited works to preserve area streams through watershed cleanup days and stream restoration projects. The chapter also has women’s, children’s, and veterans’ fishing groups that are open to everyone and allow people the chance to get on the water.
You may have seen the group’s Trout in the Classroom projects in local schools and at the State College YMCA. These give youth the opportunity to raise trout from eggs to fry, monitor tank water quality, engage in
stream habitat study, learn to
appreciate water resources, foster
a conservation ethic, and grow to
understand the ecosystem.
One water, one plan
There is a well-known image that hangs in the hallway at ClearWater’s main office on North Atherton Street in State College, drawn by co-founder and first president McClure.
In a large bathtub sits someone representing all the municipalities that share the Spring Creek Aquifer, from Bellefonte where the aquifer springs out at the Big Spring, to Ferguson Township and Penn State at the start of the water system and even Rockview, represented by a man in prison stripes. From above drops all the things that
collect in the aquifer, from acid rain, to runoff from landfills, leaking fuel tanks, and private septic systems. It shows how we are all in this together and our clean drinking water is affected by many things.
The Spring Creek Watershed Commission works to get all those entities in the same loop. With representatives of all the affected communities, the watershed commission does all the important but sometimes dull detail work, establishing rules and regulations on stormwater management.
The commission is working on an integrated One Water Plan that hopes to set up a multi-municipality plan to establish basic water-management practices, says commission president Dennis Hamiester.
The commission also has created an online atlas (springcreekwatershedatlas.org/water) with detailed information about the watershed and it holds yearly informational sessions with speakers to keep the public engaged about what residents can do to leave a positive impact on the environment.
The commission works with property owners on such measures as how they can control the water that comes off their gutters, not paving too much of a yard to allow for better drainage, and not using heavily concentrated fertilizer that can damage the watershed.
“There is a long series of things as landowners that we should be doing that trickle down to the larger issue of the watershed. If all of us do it together, we can control it, but everyone has a very important part to play,” says Hamiester.
While last year was the wettest on record, you never know what the future will bring, he notes.
“Our greatest success has been advocating for the importance of Spring Creek and the watershed and educating our general public about the importance and their role in being a vital player,” says Hameister.
He is looking to move on from his role in municipal government soon, but is hoping to see the One Water Plan come to fruition.
In this community, people will continue to think about what happens with their water, down to the last drop.
Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.