A faded Deer Creek Road sign not so clearly marks a turn off of Route 53 in Morrisdale. Deer Creek Road, State Route 1009, takes one north through farms and woodlots, over the roaring trucks on Interstate 80, and then it descends on a curved, rhododendron-lined path into the quiet West Branch Valley.
Besides the peaceful northcentral Pennsylvania countryside, the drive exposes the partially-healed scars left by generations of coal mining. A not-so-vegetated spoil pile, a semi-recontoured strip mine that still looks like the former dragline trench that it was and, of course, the orange rock-lined West Branch of the Susquehanna River — all bear witness to the sad legacy of coal.
At Frenchville Station, now nothing more than a railroad line and a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission boat launch, Deer Creek Road crosses the West Branch and meets its namesake stream.
Deer Creek is a picturesque stream with cold water plunging over huge boulders and tumbling into crystal pools. Hemlock, rhododendron and birch trees line its banks, making it one of the most beautiful small streams in Central Pennsylvania. On many occasions, I have stopped to photograph it or just take a closer look at its clear waters.Unfortunately, its iron-stained rocks and acidic water show that lower Deer Creek also bears the scars of coal mining. As much as I admire the stream, I also bemoan the sad state of its lower reaches — no trout swim in the pools and no mayflies emerge from its rocky bottom.
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I was driving along Deer Creek in late October when I noticed what appeared to be two anglers in the middle of the stream. I wondered if maybe they knew more than I did about Deer Creek, so I could not resist tucking my pickup onto the berm and walking over to see.
On closer inspection, I found not anglers, but Watershed Specialist Rachel Kester and watershed volunteer Carl Undercofler. They were busy measuring the water velocity and collecting other data as a part of their larger study of the watershed.
We enjoyed the autumn sun and swatted away hundreds of Asian lady beetles as they told me about the new initiative to study and then clean up Deer Creek.
Kester, who works for the Clearfield County Conservation District, is the project coordinator for the Growing Greener-funded assessment of the Deer Creek Watershed, which began Sept. 1. Undercofler, who Kester called a “volunteer extraordinaire,” has walked the entire length of the stream. Undercofler is very active in the recently-formed Deer Creek Watershed Association as well as six other watershed associations.
The year-long assessment involves performing basic water chemistry tests in the field and collecting and sending samples to a certified laboratory for analysis, as well as collecting other data on Deer Creek and its watershed. Macroinvertebrates, where they exist, will also be sampled. The following AMD parameters will be analyzed: pH, iron, conductivity, alkalinity, acidity, manganese, aluminum, sulfate, suspended solids, and total dissolved solids. The watershed association regularly monitors water quality at 40-50 sampling points throughout the stream.
The 231⁄2-square-mile Deer Creek watershed feeds Deer Creek, a tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. Deer Creek originates just south of the Caledonia Pike in Girard Township and flows south until it enters the West Branch at Frenchville Station, east of Lecontes Mills.
According to Kester, this watershed has a number of problems. The headwaters are located in Moshannon State Forest, in an area where no mining has occurred. However, its tributaries, just like those of neighboring Mosquito Creek, show declining brook trout populations due to acid deposition.
Shortly after Deer Creek exits Moshannon State Forest, it encounters abandoned mine drainage (AMD) that affects the remainder of the watershed. The AMD originates from old deep mines, abandoned strip mines and spoil piles from mining that has occurred since the turn of the Twentieth Century.
Early data shows that Deer Creek has some serious AMD problems. A pH of 7 is neutral, and Deer Creek’s level is far below that. Due to the influence of AMD sites throughout the watershed, the stream also needs reductions in iron, manganese and aluminum concentrations.
“The pH [a measure of acidity and alkalinity] of Deer Creek is 4 at the mouth and improves to 5 in the upper reaches. The pH of the second tributary up from the mouth is only 2.9 – highly acidic,” Kester said. “Believe it or not, native brook trout actually exist in the headwaters,” added Undercofler. “They have to be some of the toughest brook trout in the world.”
The presence of these trout is a real plus, according to Undercofler. Once the lower part of the watershed is cleaned, it would be very easy for brook trout from the headwaters to repopulate the entire length of stream.
According to Kester, other project plans include a stream reconnaissance to identify all AMD points. The local landowners will be informed and a public meeting will be held. The watershed association also hopes to erect an educational sign to keep the public informed of the project and to recruit new volunteers. In the end, a restoration plan will be developed.Like the tattered road sign, the memory of Deer Creek as a productive wild trout stream might just be fading away. Thankfully, this small group of volunteers is working to prevent that from happening. With hard work and a good chunk of money, Deer Creek could be restored to the beautiful trout stream that it was before coal mining. The Deer Creek Watershed Association meets monthly in Frenchville.
Contact Kester at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in helping.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.