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Conemaugh River Lake benefits from longtime cleanup

| Monday, July 1, 2013, 10:42 p.m.

Conemaugh River Lake is a cause for hope.

The 800-acre reservoir near Saltsburg on the Westmoreland-Indiana county border long had a reputation for being polluted. In 1993, water quality testing on the river near Blairsville revealed a pH of about 4.8. That's comparable to beer and too acidic for most fish to survive.

When that site was tested in April, though, the pH registered 7.5, an increase in quality of about 1,000 percent, said Melissa Reckner, director of the Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team, a program of the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy. Cleanup efforts carried out in the watershed over the past 20 years by dozens of conservation groups are behind that, she said.

“That's the encouraging part,” said Reckner.

Equally encouraging is how fish populations are responding.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologists sampled Conemaugh River Lake and its two bays, Aultmans Run and Spruce Run, this spring. They collected 16 species of fish, including brook silversides, a pollution-intolerant minnow.

What's especially noteworthy is where many of the fish were found. Populations of largemouth bass, northern pike and panfish traditionally have been good in Aultmans Run and Spruce Run bays because of clean water flowing into them from tributary streams, said Rick Lorson, the commission's area fisheries manager. They've always been poor in the main lake.

“But that has changed to where there is some decent fishing for several species on the main lake,” Lorson added.

In 2004, biologists collected three panfish of at least 7 inches per hour in the main lake, said commission fisheries biologist aide Nate Reinhart. This year they collected 21 per hour.

More impressive is the extent to which largemouth bass have moved into the main lake, he said. In a 1996 survey, biologists collected seven bass per hour. That went to 17 per hour in 2004. This year it was 36 per hour. The size of the bass in the main lake has increased, too, with about four times as many longer than 15 inches found this year as compared to 1996.

Work to restore the lake isn't finished. Hundreds of mine drainage pollution sites remain, Reckner said.

But things are definitely trending toward the good, Reinhart said.

“Looking at fish populations over the past decade, everything's increased in some sort of way,” he said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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