Trout Unlimited, Fish Commission, DEP Celebrate West Branch Susquehanna Recovery

Trout Unlimited, the nation’s largest coldwater conservation organization, the Fish and Boat Commission, and the Department of Environmental Protection celebrated improvements to the West Branch Susquehanna River and its many tributaries at an event Monday at Hyner View State Park.

           A 2009 Trout Unlimited study shows that the overall health of the watershed is greatly improving compared to 25 years ago. Fish and insect populations have increased, and water quality and habitat have improved. Scientists collected data at 90 sites across the watershed to evaluate how abandoned mine restoration has affected the river and its tributaries.
            “The West Branch Susquehanna River and many of its tributaries are showing amazing signs of recovery from severe pollution from mine drainage for nearly a century,” said Amy Wolfe, TU’s Eastern Abandoned Mine Program Director. “There is still an enormous amount of work that needs to be done to achieve full recovery, but these marked improvements prove that the investments of time and money have been well spent.”
            Within the watershed, more than 1,200 stream miles are polluted with mine drainage from abandoned coal mines. TU’s study documents that in the past 25 years, the river’s acidity and level of toxic metals have significantly decreased - to levels deemed safe by the DEP - between Curwensville in Clearfield County to Renovo in Clinton County.
            Water quality has also improved due to water treatment systems and as a result, native brook trout are returning to streams that were previously devoid of life due to the mine drainage.
            Biologists from the PFBC's Fisheries Management Area 3 assisted with the study by conducting fish surveys at nine sites on the river (pictured from left - John Arway, PFBC Executive Director; Dave Kristine, Area 3 Fisheries Biologist; and Jason Detar, Area 3 Fisheries Manager).     
            There were increases in the numbers and variety of fish found at the sites. The most substantial improvement was found at Hyner, where the amount of fish caught increased by more than 3,000% when compared to a similar survey conducted just 10 years ago.
            “Today marks a milestone in the recovery of the West Branch,” said PFBC Executive Director John Arway. “This reach of the Susquehanna River has been long considered polluted and beyond repair, a casualty of acid mine drainage. It has taken decades of remediation driven by volunteer groups like TU, state and federal government agencies that provide the funding and industry which now treats wastewater to today’s standards.  As a result, the West Branch has responded and I am pleased to declare that it is now fishable again.”
            Wolfe and Arway say that protection of water and fishery resources from future sources of potential pollution, such as Marcellus shale natural gas drilling, should be a statewide priority as the West Branch Susquehanna and other streams are restored from historic sources of pollution from coal mining.
            Additional speakers at the event included John Stefanko, DEP Acting Deputy Secretary for the Office of Active and Abandoned Mine Operations, and DEP staff Pam Milavec and Michael Smith.
            The study was funded by the DEP and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Major project partners, in addition to the PFBC, include the DEP, Susquehanna River Basin Commission and members of the West Branch Susquehanna Restoration Coalition.
            The full technical report is available online.


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