Laurel Hill Creek Makes Most Endangered List

American Rivers just named Laurel Hill Creek one of the most endangered streams in the country. The high quality creek and its tributaries have long been the lifeblood of the Laurel Highlands. But as The Allegheny Front's Deborah Weisberg reports, too many people using too much water could cause the watershed to go dry.

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OPEN: American Rivers just named Laurel Hill Creek one of the most endangered rivers in the country. The high quality creek and its tributaries have long been the lifeblood of the Laurel Highlands. But as The Allegheny Front's Deborah Weisberg reports, too many people using too much water could cause the watershed to go dry.

Weisberg: A soft rain falls on Laurel Hill Creek as it wends its way under covered bridges, through woods dense with hemlock and rhododendron. A week from now, when trout season opens, anglers will flock to this picturesque mountain stream near Ohiopyle State Park and Seven Springs resort. George Fanala pulls up alongside the stream in his pickup truck. He's a fisherman and wonders if Laurel Hill Creek will have enough cold flow come opening day.

Fanala: Okay, look right now, this is the first of April, trout season's right around the corner and this creek, when I was a little child, this creek was a lot bigger and a lot deeper this time of year than it is now...there's definitely a problem with this watershed in this area

Weisberg: And it's a big problem since Laurel Hill Creek and its tributaries sustain a lot of big users. Seven Springs and Hidden Valley draw millions of gallons of water a day to make snow and irrigate their golf courses. Then there are homes, farms, limestone quarries and other businesses, both existing and proposed. Krissy Kasserman is the Youghiogheny River Keeper. Today, she's standing on a trib of Laurel Hill Creek, just yards away from where a springhouse owner wants to pump water for bottling. Kasserman is also worried about natural gas drillers.

Kasserman: We have concerns with the Marcellus shale industry obtaining permits to withdraw incredible amounts of water from surface streams and from aquifers in order to fracture these wells.

Weisberg: It was Kasserman's organization, Mountain Watershed Association, that convinced American Rivers to include Laurel Hill Creek on its most endangered list. Kasserman is also urging the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to issue conservation guidelines for both ground and surface water.

Kasserman: To protect the integrity of current water withdrawals, for example, Seven Springs, Somerset Borough needs for drinking, if those withdrawals are to be protected, there has to be some sort of regulation to deal with future withdraws in this watershed.

Weisberg: But there are no regulations for water withdrawals in Pennsylvania other than requiring permits for those who pump a thousand or more gallons a day. Even the statewide water resource plan signed last month is an advisory, not a regulatory, document. But it does enable DEP to designate overused watersheds as critical areas for resource protection and to issue conservation guidelines. Deb Simko of Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited says Laurel Hill Creek qualifies for that status.

Simko: Our consultant looked at the amount of water being withdrawn from the streamÖhow much water is being put back into the streamÖand it was determined that based on the state's criteria, it came out that Laurel Hill is indeed stressed. There is too much water being taken out and not enough water being put back in or kept here in this watershed.

Weisberg: Simko served on a regional committee that helped draft the statewide water plan. She's also been the point person in trying to bring all parties to the table when it comes to saving Laurel Hill Creek.

Simko: We're not looking at shutting anybody down. We're not looking to stop development here. It's just that there has to be a balance. Can the resorts begin looking at green building technologies, can they start putting in pervious surfaces instead of paving, let the water infiltrate the ground. We absolutely need groundwater recharge in this area.

Weisberg: Somerset Borough is a major water user but refused to comment on Laurel Hill Creek. Neither would Jack Beals, the landowner who wants to bottle the water. But Seven Springs was eager to go on record. Here's spokesman Anna Weltz.

Weltz: Any of the water we do withdraw from the numerous impounds and aquifers at the resort goes right back into our area. So after it's been used, it's treated and released into the same area whether it's through golf course irrigation or snow-making capabilities. We send it right back out to where it came from.

Weisberg: As the region's largest employer, Weltz says water is critical to the resort's operations.

Weltz: Water conservation would restrict our snow-making capabilities. We have to make snow in the mid-Atlantic. We're not blessed with the snow of the West or the upper East - so we have to make snow here.

Weisberg: Because the state water plan has no regulatory teeth, it will be up to state lawmakers, local officials and DEP to implement its recommendations. And that will be quite a challenge on Laurel Hill Creek, according Pittsburgh environmental attorney Don Bluedorn. He chaired the committee that drafted the state water resource plan.

Bluedorn: I can wear my anglers hat and be sympathetic to the anglers. I can wear my skiers hat and be sympathetic to Seven Springs, and I can wear my former board members hat for drinking water authority and say well I understand what they're going through as well. These won't be easy solutions to find but I'm optimistic that solutions can be found, which just need to focus on them and put the resources into finding them.

Weisberg: Trout Unlimited's Deb Simko says it can't come a moment too soon.

Simko: I think we're at the critical point here - if we don't put some things in place, yes, we could lose the fishery.

For the Allegheny Front, I'm Deborah Weisberg.