Meetings set for economic study of Laurel Highlands water improvements |
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Jeff Himler

Efforts to improve water quality in local streams create an estimated annual economic benefit of $278 million in the Loyalhanna Creek watershed.

That’s according to the preliminary draft of a regional study, “Valuing Clean Water,” that looks to calculate such a figure for 21 sub-watersheds within the Loyalhanna-Conemaugh and Youghiogheny water basins in the Laurel Highlands.

The public, local officials and business developers will have an opportunity to weigh in on the study at a series of three meetings — beginning on May 14, from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the Loyalhanna Watershed Association’s Nimick Family Education Center, off Route 30 on the western outskirts of Ligonier.

Two other meetings are planned, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. — May 15 at the Disaster’s Edge Environmental Center in South Fork, Cambria County, and May 16, at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Champion.

“I know the importance of what we do, but the dollar figures were higher than I thought they’d be,” said Susan Huba, a member of the study’s steering committee and executive director of the Loyalhanna Watershed Association, one of the watershed groups that are partnering in the project.

She said those economic benefit figures will give organizations that have taken on conservation of local watersheds added weight when applying for government grants to help continue their work.

“Different granting agencies wanted to know, ‘What is the return on our investment to clean up a stream or restore a waterway ?” Huba said.

According to Huba, the figures calculated by study consultant Key-Log Economics of Charlottesville, Va., take into account the impact of tourism and related businesses that are attracted by the area’s improving streams and rivers, as well as the fish that are returning to areas where acid mine drainage is being treated.

“It’s a lot more than the recreational value,” Huba said, citing quality of life, health and well-being and population retention among other factors the study examined.

The study began in 2016, funded by a $40,000 grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, with matching contributions from local watershed groups. The idea for the study grew from regular meetings of the water committee of the state-designated Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Initiative.

The study also is “looking at individual projects, looking at abandoned mine issues, maybe to tell us where we should target some of our projects,” said Deb Simko, a member of the study’s steering committee and of the Fayette County-based Chestnut Ridge chapter of Trout Unlimited, another study participant.

According to Simko, there are 67 acid mine drainage treatment systems in place in the study area, which covers portions of five counties — Westmoreland, Fayette, Somerset, Cambria and Indiana.

“These treatment systems need to be maintained,” Simko said. “Where are we going to get the money to maintain them? That was the big focus for this particular study.”

Annie Quinn, executive director of another participating group, the Jacobs Creek Watershed Association, noted the group brought in $4.8 million in federal and state funding over the past two decades to help conserve and restore its local waterways. But, she said, “I still have to battle to find project partners in the region.”

She’s hoping the study results will make that process less difficult.

The study shows that “protecting and restoring watersheds go hand-in-hand with developing and maintaining a strong, vibrant economy for generations to come,” according to the Mountain Watershed Association, a key study partner based in Melcroft, Fayette County.

The study’s lead author, environmental economist Spencer Phillips, describes the Laurel Highlands’ potential as a “Rural Growth Trifecta” — including outdoor amenities, creative workers and a strong “entrepreneurial business context.”

The study notes that the region could attract visitors from among the 44 million people who live within a 200-mile radius of the Laurel Highlands. It cites demographics indicating that entrepreneurs and retirees are moving to, or staying in, the region.

Visit for more information about the study.

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