A 10% spike in water quality impairment in just a decade in the Buffalo Creek watershed — an area known for its rich environmental quality and beauty — is among the findings of an Audubon Society report seeking final public comment.
The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania , which owns Todd Nature Reserve in Buffalo Township and other land, has 75 years of conservation history in the watershed. The nonprofit compiled the study, “Buffalo Creek Watershed Conservation Plan 10 Year Update,” to serve as a guide for local governments, community groups and others on environmental stewardship and future plans.
The Audubon Society is asking the public to make final comments on the plan, which is available online, by Friday.
The report recaps what residents have known: that the watershed with Buffalo Creek and its tributaries are highly desirable areas for anglers, nature enthusiasts, hikers, cyclists and outdoors people.
That doesn’t always square with the continuing influx of residential and commercial developments in the watershed, particularly the Route 356 corridor in southeastern Butler county.
Drawing on data from the state Department of Environmental Protection, Audubon found:
Currently, 37% of the watershed’s stream miles are considered “impaired,” because tests indicated the water failed to meet one or more quality standard.
That’s a worsening of 10.5 percentage points since 2008.
DEP: Use caution when interpreting stats
But DEP spokesman Tom Decker says the that number can be misleading.
“Just because the percentages increase doesn’t mean the watershed is deteriorating,” Decker said. “It means we are operating with more sensitive methodology for sampling.”
The changing of the status of a waterway to “impaired” status isn’t a bad thing, according to Decker. “It’s better to err on the side of caution, causing more testing and looking into it,” he said.
When a source of impairment is unknown, as is the case with most of the newly deemed “impaired water” in the watershed, it means the biologist was not able to determine the source at the point of sampling.
And that could indicate a new source of activity causing the water degradation, according to Decker.
Some segments of streams were impaired while others were not.
More testing is needed to find out the source, he said. DEP’s most recent sampling in the Buffalo Creek watershed was in 2011, Decker added.
DEP stream tests monitor the presence of aquatic insects and macroinvertebrates as well water chemistry and other factors.
The source of impairment is unknown for nearly all of the additional 35 miles of impaired stream segments, according to Audubon’s analysis.
Findings from each creek
More than 50% of the stream miles in four sub-watersheds are impaired, including:
• Little Buffalo Creek (64.8%) in Buffalo, Jefferson and Winfield townships. Causes include: Agriculture, on-site wastewater, small water treatment facilities, unknown and urban runoff.
• Pine Run (92.3%) in North Buffalo and South Buffalo townships, and other areas. Causes include: Agriculture and natural sources.
• Sarver Run (52.2%) parts of Buffalo, Clinton, Jefferson, Saxonburg and Winfield township. Sarver Run had no impairment in 2008.
Sarah Koenig, Audubon’s conservation director said, “We need to determine the source and remediate accordingly.” Learning more about the water quality problems is a top priority.
Top sources of known impairments in the watershed include agriculture (26.5 miles), natural sources (17.1 miles), acid mine drainage (16.3 miles), onsite wastewater (13.5), bank modifications (8.4 miles), and urban runoff (6.3 miles), according to Audubon’s report.
Biggest impact on fish
The biggest impact of the impaired streams will hit fish populations, fishing and other recreational opportunities, according to Decker.
The Buffalo Creek watershed is coveted for its habitat by nature enthusiasts and great fishing by anglers: An Audubon-designated Important Bird Area, the watershed provides a high-quality habitat for many species of conservation concern.
Trout naturally reproduce in some of the watershed’s high quality, cold water fisheries. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission have deemed a section of Buffalo Creek as some of the best fishing waters for stocked trout.
The report also covers land uses and changes over the years including increased residential and commercial development with respective decreasing miles of agriculture and forest, which still dominate the landscape.
“We wanted to make sure that the priority items in the study are actionable and reflected the current wants and needs,” Koenig said.
Developing the watershed conservation have been a year-long process including a survey, a public meeting in Worthington, interviews with stakeholders, creation of a website and other efforts. ASWP was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds for the plan.