Normally, giving a stream a “high quality” state designation is a good thing — it triggers protective measures on the water that also protect the surrounding habitat and those who drink water originating there.
But a potential move to do that for Slab Cabin Run has Centre Region officials scrambling to respond because the tighter regulations could have a multitude of impacts, starting with more difficulty in using local projects to protect the stream.
“We recognize Slab Cabin Run needs to be improved,” said Cory Miller, executive director of the University Area Joint Authority. “But that extra step of classifying it, those regulations are designed to protect streams and we’re already kind of doing that here. Every entity has pitched in.”
The 11.2-mile stream flows on Pine Grove Mountain, through the village in Ferguson Township, roughly parallel to Shingletown Road/state Route 45 into Harris Township, along Branch Road and the Mount Nittany Expressway in College Township, through the Millbrook Marsh Nature Center and then connects to Spring Creek.
UAJA’s Kissinger Meadow project created wetlands that place additional flow into Slab Cabin Run, using some of the authority’s beneficial reuse water, the high purity water UAJA produces but that the state still defines as sewage.
While that project would be grandfathered under the High-Quality Cold Water Fishery designation, Miller said, if the stream already had it, the wetland project would not have happened.
According to state Department of Environmental Protection anti-degradation requirements, cost-effective alternatives that don’t discharge water into the stream must be considered first, such as spray irrigation. To Miller, those are more complicated options.
“Show me a place in the region we can put 160 million gallons of water,” he challenged the Council of Governments’ Public Services and Environmental Committee early this month.
And economic feasibility of a non-discharge project would mean a rate increase for UAJA customers. Rates are considered affordable at 1 percent of median income. Based on 2010 U.S. census numbers, the average of the Centre Region municipal incomes is $54,738, so rates of $547 or less would be considered affordable.
Rates currently are $400 per year, so Miller said that UAJA would be required to raise rates almost 37 percent to support an alternative that wouldn’t add water to the stream.
“It makes one of the goals that the region had, of using 50 percent of the beneficial reuse water for environmental benefit, rather difficult,” Miller said. Under the high-quality designation, he said, the next phase of meadows and stream augmentation couldn’t go forward.
UAJA customers already have contributed $70 million to make beneficial reuse happen. Businesses also use the water, including the Centre Hills Country Club golf course and Cintas for washing uniforms.
With the potential increase in UAJA rates, Miller predicted the region would have to pay another $70 million for a project that uses the beneficial reuse water without placing it in Slab Cabin. But planning for the current projects to do so came after Spring Creek was given a high-quality designation.
“The concept that we might not be able to use it the way it’s been designed is a real concern for the greater community,” said College Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh. “We’re going to end up paying $70 million to address the issue we were fixing.”
The discussion started with a report from the state Fish and Boat Commission. The commission studied brown trout levels at seven sample sites during July and August 2012.
The report concluded that Slab Cabin has an “excellent wild brown trout population” and “warrants maximum protection against any future degradation to water quality.” That resulted in three recommendations — add Slab Cabin to Fish and Boat’s Class A Wild Trout Waters list, manage it as such with no stocking of hatchery trout, and the request to DEP to designate the stream as high quality.
Fish and Boat Central Region spokesman Carl Richardson said that the agency keeps a routine schedule to monitor stream trout populations.
“We’ve got more miles of flowing waters than Alaska, so it takes time to get to each of these waters,” he said.
Local officials are concerned that the stream was sampled on only four days last year. Miller and others expressed concern that last year’s wet season may have skewed the data, especially because Slab Cabin has run dry in the past.
“I’m not sure basing the request on a survey done in 2012 really gives a good basis for the whole request,” said Patton Township Supervisor Bryce Boyer. “I’m concerned with that.”
Richardson said the size of the trout gives evidence of multiple years of fish reproduction and that one wet season isn’t a factor in that.
“It may help the little fish, but the big fish didn’t just appear because the flows were high,” he said.
As for the recommendation to designate the stream high quality, Richardson pointed out that Spring Creek already is designated that way, as are two sections of Slab Cabin. The request would re-designate the entire length.
“That says to us then, the main stream is the best of the best, then the tributaries are as well,” he said.
And that’s a big deal. Judi Sittler, president of the Spring Creek chapter of conservation group Trout Unlimited, said that the group, in general, is always in favor of an upward designation. But she said Miller made some compelling points about Slab Cabin.
“Slab Cabin needs our protection very badly,” she said. “I think everyone wants the same thing.”
Trout Unlimited’s board meets Monday and UAJA’s meets Wednesday to further discuss the issue. Miller will recommend to UAJA that the region seek quotes for a scientific study to offer to the DEP.
Miller said that such a study is the only way to counter the high-quality designation, by showing evidence for why the stream should remain as-is. He said it’s that or just let the designation happen, which could take several years. There is no timeline or deadline the DEP follows.
Miller estimated that such a study could cost in the range of $100,000. Despite that, Ferguson Township supervisors already have expressed support. The region’s municipalities are discussing the issue at this month’s meetings.
“I think the whole region should get involved in this,” said Ferguson Chairman George Pytel. “I don’t want the sewer authority to fight this alone.”
While officials were under the impression that there is no avenue for public input into the DEP’s process, spokeswoman Amanda Witman said there is still that opportunity. She said the DEP is now reviewing the data from Fish and Boat.
“After that, there is a series of other steps before the part of the process that may involve public comment,” she said.
Other potential worries officials have expressed are more stringent requirements for sections of the stream considered “impaired” and how that could impact future development in the region, and how more regulations will affect the State College Borough and College Township water authorities, which already follow stringent permit processes for extracting water.
“I don’t want anybody to be scared growth in the Centre Region is going to come to a grinding halt because of this,” Miller said. “It’s something that’s going to have an effect many years from now. But it is an immediate action DEP could take, so we have to deal with it now.”
Officials agree the stream needs protection, but they also don’t want to lose what control they have in making that happen.
“If it’s good for the stream, then we should be happy with it,” Sittler said. “Every municipality and every water authority needs to be involved in this. Without good water, a community doesn’t last too long.”