Critical Watersheds in Balancing Act

As part of the state's water plan, two creeks outside of Pittsburgh have been identified as Critical Water Planning Areas. But this final designation is just the beginning of balancing the competing interests for their valuable water. The Allegheny Front's Kara Holsopple has more.

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OPEN: †As part of the state's water plan, two creeks outside of Pittsburgh have been identified as Critical Water Planning Areas. But this final designation is just the beginning of balancing the competing interests for their valuable water. The Allegheny Front's Kara Holsopple has more.

HOLSOPPLE: †You can chalk up the naming of Laurel Hill and Back Creeks as critical watersheds to basic math. There are more subtractions in the watersheds than there are additions. †Pennsylvania's new water plan requires that there be a blueprint to fix imbalances where water supply is not keeping up with demand. †It's a typical problem of watersheds throughout the state--but there's only enough money for the most dire cases.

AMBI Statewide meeting sound

Last fall the Statewide Water Resources Committee met in Harrisburg to vote on which of these dire cases would become critical planning areas. †Laurel Hill Creek in Somerset County and Back Creek in Fayette County were two of only four creeks that made their final cut. †Both watersheds straddle a ridge in the Laurel Highlands. †The process for creating the blueprint to balance water use will be a model for the handful of watersheds on a critical watch list. †Dave Jostenski, a DEP point person for the group, says that though the plans will be voluntary, more like guidelines -- follow-through is expected.

JOSTENSKI: We hope through the end of the process that there's no new surprises that everybody's been collaborating and coming up with a plan that can be implemented.

AMBI Statewide meeting sound out

HOLSOPPLE:When Jostenski says ìeverybody,î he means environmental and conservation groups, industry and government. †And commercial interests like Seven Springs Mountain Resort. †Over a million visitors a year head to the resort for skiing, outdoor recreation and conventions. †It's one of the biggest water users in both of the critical areas.

[AMBI outdoor snowcat sound].

On this day in early April, a light snow is falling. †The ski season just ended. †And workers maneuver the resort's snow-moving equipment into storage sheds.

RUSSELL: This is the diesel fuel we're trying to get away from.

Nat Sound Snow plow motors

HOLSOPPLE: Mountain Manager Kirk Russell says the yellow snowcats still run on diesel, †but †inside the new compressor room, [AMBI outdoor sound out][AMBI moving inside compressor room]they've converted to electric. Air from the compressors and water - †piped up the mountains - make snow. †Russell says it's a common misconception that the snowmaking system wastes water.

RUSSELL: All the snow that we make -- the water as it melts, it goes into the ground, and we collect any run off and we pump it back up into holding ponds, and that way all of our water is basically recycled.

AMBI Compressor room sound out

HOLSOPPLE: Recycling and storing water help decrease demand, and Russell says it's part of Seven Springs' effort to green their practices. †Folks from the Mountain Watershed Association praise Seven Springs for participating in the Critical Water Planning process from the beginning. †But the group advocates for big users like Seven Springs to look for water elsewhere. †Without real incentives for these users, Mountain Watershed hopes they recognize that healthy streams are good for everyone's bottom line.

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Today, staff of Mountain Watershed are down at the bottom of the mountain--where it's still snowing and sleeting. †Field technician Carla Ruddock's ankle deep in orange muck seeping from an abandoned mine. †She wields a wrench to keep the remediation ponds in working order.

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RUDDOCK: I'm using this wrench, and we're opening up the valves to basically clean the pipes and get the precipitate out of the pipes.

NAT Sound †flushing sound

HOLSOPPLE: ††Krissy Kasserman, with the watershed group, shivers as she watches water gush out of a pipe toward a stream on the other side of the field. †She says unfortunately there's very little other water coming into this watershed where Back Creek is a tributary--and that's threatening the cold water fisheries.

KASSERMAN: We have a lot of withdrawals in the watershed, but we don't have a lot of discharges. †So a lot of water comes out, but it isn't necessarily put back into this watershed. †It's either discharged in another watershed or it's recycled or it';s reused, so there's a net deficit.

AMBI Sleet sound out †

HOLSOPPLE: Dan Galeoneís a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey. †Heís done field work for the Laurel Hill and Back Creek water plans. He says, while there has been a slight decrease in the amount of water taken from Laurel Hill Creek over the last few years, withdrawals from Back Creek are up 70 percent. †And he says, less water is going to Back Creek, naturally. †He explains it by what he calls the bucket test.

GALEONE: If you dropped a bucket of water, say it was just ice, at the top of the ridge, and you dropped water down on Laurel Hill Creek side, well that would go to Laurel Hill Creek side and Back Creek would go to Back Creek side, but if that water infiltrated the soil and got into the groundwater, some of that water would probably end up in Laurel Hill Creek side.

HOLSOPPLE: †That's because the geological bed dips towards the Laurel Hill Creek side--sending less water to Back Creek.

And as in other watersheds across the state, development is part of the equation. Hundreds of new seasonal homes being planned in both watersheds over the next fifteen years mean more pavement and less water seeping back into the groundwater.

AMBI Meeting sound

These are some of the issues being tossed around as the regional committee gathers at Seven Springs. †Deb Simko, who serves on the committee and represents Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited, says the ultimate question--will there be enough water?--is still unanswered.

SIMKO: There's enough water in the stream for my fish and my bugs, there's enough water for people that want to canoe, there's enough water for people at the state parks, enough water for the resorts. †That's going to be our biggest challenge, †it's not easy in discussing a lot of these things.

HOLSOPPLE: Simko and the committee are adding up the pieces of the plan slated to be finished by the end of the year. She says the next few months will be key--as DEP reviews permits to withdraw water and water users look for alternate sources. †Eyes from other parts of the state are watching these two critical areas closely to see how the process will play out, and how similar planning might benefit their own stressed watersheds.

For The Allegheny Front, I'm Kara Holsopple.