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Sewickley Herald names Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association Citizen of the Year

Bobby Cherry
| Tuesday, April 5, 2016, 2:30 p.m.
Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association board members Diana Morrow (from left) and April Claus and president Sarah Shockey stand for a photo at the site of the former Woodland Dam along Woodland Road in Edgeworth on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. For the group's work to preserve a watershed and protect wildlife, they have been named the Sewickley Herald Citizen of the Year for 2015.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association board members Diana Morrow (from left) and April Claus and president Sarah Shockey stand for a photo at the site of the former Woodland Dam along Woodland Road in Edgeworth on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. For the group's work to preserve a watershed and protect wildlife, they have been named the Sewickley Herald Citizen of the Year for 2015.

For more than 40 years, one group's mission has been to preserve and protect Little Sewickley Creek and habitats that use the body of water.

“There were several people who recognized that here was an area that was not developed, the stream had a lot of desirable features to it (and) people enjoyed just being along it,” Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association President Sarah Shockey said. “They felt it should be protected.”

Since then, members of the group have accomplished a myriad of projects up and downstream, including the placement last year of ponds along the Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights municipal boundary to protect a salamander habitat, which has led the organization to be named the Sewickley Herald Citizen of the Year for 2015.

Saving the Jefferson salamander — an uncommon species known to Pennsylvania and other Northeast states — happened almost by accident.

After a sediment pond used as a settling pond for overflow from the Bell Acres Municipal Authority was filled in around the mid- to late-2000s, health inspectors and treatment plant workers began noticing salamanders and frogs dying in sewage in nearby tanks.

The hole the creatures had been using was filled in without anybody noticing, said Diane Abell, a member of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, who has helped to lead the salamander project near Grouse Lane.

The salamanders had nowhere to go so they sought out water in the sewage tanks — the very place that killed many of them over the years.

Temporary cattle tanks previously had been installed in an effort to keep wildlife from dying, said April Claus — who serves as a board member for the watershed association and also as Fern Hollow Nature Center's environmental education director — calling it a “Band-Aid effect for the population limping along here.”

Construction was completed in the fall to recreate ponds for wildlife, in hopes that salamanders would begin to breed and use the area.

A $10,000 grant from the Allegheny County Conservation District helped make the pond a reality.

By February, Claus said, the salamanders and other creatures not only discovered the ponds but began breeding there and using them.

Last month, Claus showed Sewickley Herald staff members a number of salamander and wood frog eggs in ponds.

When the temporary cattle tanks were used, Abell would venture to the site at night to retrieve them from the tanks.

“It was raining … the ground was glistening with salamanders and wood frogs,” Abell said. “Some people would have been freaked out. I felt like I was in heaven.”

Claus and Abell credited the joint work of Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, watershed association, municipal authority, conservation district and Robert Morris University for working together to save the salamanders.

But saving the salamanders is a fraction of the work the group does across a seven-community area that includes Bell Acres, Edgeworth, Franklin Park, Leet, Leetsdale, Sewickley Heights and Sewickley Hills.

Since its inception, the group has conducted quality assurance tests on water, ground and species; worked with other organizations to protect the creek; educated students through the group QV Creekers and through summer enrichment camps; and acquired property as part of a land conservation agreement.

The two parcels of land — the 96-acre Wagonner's Hollow in Sewickley Heights and the 78-acre Devil's Hollow in Bell Acres — were protected in the early 1990s.

For Shockey, the group's president, educating Sewickley Valley residents of the creek remains as crucial as protecting it.

“It's important because people need to know where things come from,” she said. “It's great to go to Walker Park and play in the creek but it's also really essential for people to know something about the area itself — about where the stream comes from, why it's there (and) what do people do that can be deleterious to the conditions of the stream. If they don't get out and look at it, they don't really understand what anybody is talking about.

“When people see what we're doing and why we're doing it, it's really important for them to put it together. We appreciate them just knowing about it.”

Shockey, who lives along the creek, said it and protected land around it helped to keep Hurricane Ivan from causing extensive damage to her property.

“The only time in 40 years we lived along the stream that I've seen it actually flood,” she said of the hurricane that hit the Pittsburgh region and much of the Northeast in September 2014. “As my husband put it: ‘We had beachfront property in our yard.'”

While Shockey and Abell focus efforts on educating and protecting, the women said they each also spend time enjoying the resource they work to save.

“We enjoy it every day,” Shockey said of she and her husband, adding that they will walk along it, throw sticks to their dogs and look for fish.

Abell said she first grew connected to the creek through taking her children there when she moved to the area in the early 1980s.

“A river is wonderful and the ocean is great,” she said. “But there's something about a creek. It's more manageable for children to explore.

“It's a great resource for education and connecting children with nature. A lot of kids learn about nature on the computer. It's a resource beyond Sewickley.”

Bobby Cherry is an associate editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-324-1408 or rcherry@tribweb.com.

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