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Shedding some light on watersheds

| Sunday, June 25, 2006

The dictionary definition of watershed is the land draining into, or supplying water to, a river, river system or other body of water. That land can be just a few acres to a small stream, or half a continent to large rivers.

Watershed is an important geographic/geologic term. It is also important for all of us to understand, because things that happen in the upper part of a watershed can have a huge impact on the lower part.

I was reminded of the upper-lower interaction of a watershed while reading "The Great Allegheny Passage Companion, Guide to History and Heritage Along The Trail," by Bill Metzger and published by The Local History Company of Pittsburgh.

In the book Bill writes about the demise of a paper mill in West Newton. In the late 1800s, the mill produced some of the finest paper in the United States.

Pure water is absolutely necessary for the making of quality paper. In the mid 1800s, the lower reaches of the Youghiogheny River, flowing next to West Newton, supplied copious amounts of quality water. However, by the end of the century, when mining and logging in the upper watershed began to pollute the river with acid and silt, the water quality declined quickly, and the paper mill closed.

The story got me to thinking about writing this article describing a watershed and pointing out how decisions upstream can have an impact on activities downstream. I started writing and realized that words didn't work very well to describe such a large concept and geographic area.

So what better way to understand a watershed than to take a drive in one, from top to bottom, to see it firsthand•

To add interest, this drive passes three covered bridges in the Laurel Ridge region. Some of the roads are dirt, but well maintained, so slow and easy is the best approach.

After looking at a number of streams to use as an example, I decided that Laurel Hill Creek in Somerset County was a good one.

To start, take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Donegal exit. At the exit, turn left onto Route 31 toward Somerset. At the summit of Laurel Ridge, look for Gardner Road (TR 587) to the right and go 0.2 mile and right again onto Jones Mill Road, a dirt road within Forbes State Forest.

This is the beginning, or top, of the watershed. At the summit of Laurel Ridge, rain or snow falling on the mountain flows either to the west or east -- west into Indian Creek or east into Laurel Hill Creek. You won't see many, or any, streams high on the ridge, because most of the water soaks into the soil and becomes ground water.

Head downslope on Jones Mill Road and soon you will see the beginnings of Jones Mill Run. Here the ground water reaches a layer of rock that is not permeable, and it bubbles to the surface as a seep or spring. Numerous springs join and a run is born.

As you descend the mountain for four miles, the road crosses Jones Mill Run several times, and each time the stream has collected more small tributaries and grows larger.

Remember the size of the watercourse each time you see it as you continue to the bottom of the watershed. The stream will grow from a trickle to a full-sized waterway.

At 4.2 miles and County Line Road, turn left and go 1.7 miles to Barron Church Road (TR 3033) and turn right.

On the right is Laurel Hill Creek. The watercourse is much larger than Jones Mill Run, because this waterway is a combination of dozens of smaller runs coming off the east side of Laurel Ridge. Jones Mill is just one of them.

Continue for 1.3 miles to Gary Road and turn right. In just over a half mile the road crosses Laurel Hill Creek with a scenic view up- and downstream. Continue for another 1.5 miles to Cole Run Road.

If you are interested in a short side trip, turn right at this intersection and go 0.2 mile to where the road crosses Cole Run, a mountain stream tumbling down Laurel Ridge. There is a small pull-off here, and a short trail that leads to Cole Run Falls, one of the scenic cascades in the region. After visiting the falls, go back to the Gary Road and Cole Run Road intersection and continue downhill.

At the next stop sign, turn left and go 0.9 miles to a "T" intersection. Just to the left is the Barronvale Covered Bridge. This is one of the many wooden covered bridges that once crossed Laurel Hill Creek. This double-span structure was built around 1845 and is the longest covered bridge in Somerset County. It is open to foot traffic only.

Turn right at this intersection and almost immediately turn left onto Ream Road. Go one mile to Route 653 and turn left again. On the right is Kings Bridge over Laurel Hill Creek. This bridge is significant for the original features of nail-laminated arches. Notice that the bridge is waiting for rehabilitation, temporarily supported by steel trusses.

Just past the bridge, turn right onto McGuire Road. Again the road follows Laurel Hill Creek for a short distance. Floodplains alongside the stream vary in width, and in places there are steep slopes right against the stream. Because of this, there are no roads that follow the length of Laurel Hill Creek, so enjoy these glimpses.

McGuire Road climbs a steep hill onto agricultural uplands.

Here is an example of where upstream management may impact downstream communities. Good farming practices, such as the correct amount of fertilizers and pesticides, make sure that just enough materials are applied to aid crops and none are washed away or seep into the ground water. Excessive runoff, poor erosion control and other poor management practices allow harmful substances to pass off the farmland and get into the streams.

Go 1.7 miles to a "T" in the village of Metzler. Off to the right is the creek again, this time with an impoundment, Whipkey Dam. By now, Laurel Hill Creek has passed through land with farms and old mines, past homes and cabins and under roads. Although each of these has contributed some pollution to the stream, the small amounts introduced have been dissolved, dispersed and neutralized by the natural functions of a healthy stream ecosystem, and the waterway remains clean and sparkling.

Turn left and go 1.5 miles to a stop sign at Route 281 and turn right. Go just 0.3 mile to Kingwood and bear right onto Humbert Road. This pleasant, hard-surface road winds down into Coke Oven Hollow.

The name is a reminder of the industry that once worked in these hollows. Although they are no longer visible, there were coal mines on the surrounding hills. The timber was cut to make charcoal and used to make coke that was transported to iron furnaces.

These were the activities that once contaminated these headwater streams. Deforestation leads to erosion and siltation. Mines produced acidic discharge that destroyed life in the streams, and thus allowed even more pollution to reach the Youghiogheny River all the way downstream to West Newton.

The road finally meets Laurel Hill Creek again at Paddytown Hollow and in a short distance is Lower Humbert Bridge built in 1891. This is a working bridge with daily traffic.

At this point Laurel Hill Creek is a wide but shallow stream. During periods of high water, kayaks and canoes ply the waters for an exciting, fast ride. At normal levels it is popular trout water, and on opening day local sportsmen's clubs offer pancake breakfasts, with pure Somerset County maple syrup, of course, cooked and served in the covered bridges.

Although this watershed contributed to the degradation of the larger Youghiogheny River, the damage has been repaired. Regulations on discharges into streams have allowed the natural functions to return, and now Laurel Hill Creek is one of the best fishing streams in the region.

Just three miles away is the end of the Laurel Hill Creek watershed.

Continue on Humbert Road to Route 281 again in one mile. Bear right following the highway toward Ursina and Confluence. Go into Confluence and instead of following Route 281 with a left turn onto Oden Street, go straight on Logan Place and then make a right on Hughart Street, keeping the town square on your right.

Hughart becomes Latrobe Street and in a short distance crosses Laurel Hill Creek. This is the end of the Laurel Hill Creek watershed where it joins the Casselman River.

Go just a bit farther to an open area on the left. This is a small park where you can pull to the side of the road and look back to see the confluence of the Casselman and Youghiogheny rivers, and just back around the corner the mouth of Laurel Hill Creek.

Here, three watersheds come together and build an even larger watershed. Upstream is 141 square miles of the Laurel Hill Creek watershed.

Of course the Casselman and Youghiogheny River watersheds are much larger and extend into Maryland and West Virginia. Downstream the Youghiogheny flows into the Monongahela and that river, of course, joins the Allegheny to form the Ohio in Pittsburgh.

When you think about all the water you have seen from the summit of Laurel Ridge to the Casselman and the Youghiogheny, remember it is ultimately headed to Pittsburgh and may become your drinking water. You may then begin to realize that good conservation practices to reduce erosion and pollution in the Laurel Mountains of Somerset County really do mean a lot to everyone downstream -- and nearly all us live downstream.

Yes, I will get you back home.

Go back through Confluence. Take Route 281 north to Somerset and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

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